Print Project: Black Lives Matter and the Rise of Social Media Activism

On February 26, 2012, a young African American teenager by the name of Trayvon Martin was murdered in Sanford, Florida. This ignited a social movement in America to reconsider how our society discards black bodies and values black lives. A stream of high profile cases of police brutality that resulted in the deaths of unarmed black citizens fueled activists and concerned citizens to use digital media platforms to organize a call to action. Community activists protested in cities across the country in many ways. They physically marched the streets of their neighborhoods, picketed signs in front of their local municipalities, stopped traffic on bustling highways, but arguably the most impactful protest came from a placeless space, social media.

Though the statistical and historical evidence revolving police brutality, shows this is far from a novel issue, what brought the feet to the pavement and international demand for social justice? What is the difference from the era of Emmett Till, George Stinney, or Fred Hampton? What made millions care more than ever to proclaim, “Enough is enough!”. Simple, what is here now that was not around during the murders of Black Americans decades ago? Two words, social media. Twitter and Instagram, two of some of the top social media platforms in the world, played a major role in the new age of social media activism. Their platforms provided space for dialogue and organization surrounding the epidemic of murders and the disposal of black lives across the country. Scholars, activists, and the general public were able to exchange ideas, information, and historical context for real-time problems facing their communities.

It was in this space, that the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter created a network that grew into a force that demanded the attention of lawmakers to acknowledge their collective voice. This hashtag, this movement created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, made history. It presented a new blueprint for social movements to share their message and content for the masses in real-time. Even the controversy and disapproval of the nonviolent social activist network that is shared on Twitter and Instagram creates further dialogue and attention to the matter.

Twitter and Instagram propelled the organization of the Black Lives Matter network. It will be interesting to dive deeper into the dialogue, organization, and historical context on these social media platforms during the network’s early years. For this semester’s print project, I propose analyzing the significance of the organization and dialogue surrounding the Black Lives Matter network on Twitter and Instagram. In turn, this project will connect the network’s presence on these social media platforms in the development of social media activism and datasets.

Where Historians fit in the Age of Convenient Open-sources

It’s a warm summer’s day, June 19th to be exact. You’re scrolling down your news feed on Instagram and start to see a flood of posts from your friends with the hashtag #HappyJuneteenth. Based on the tone of the posts, you get a sense that the hashtag relates to some historic milestone. Curiosity draws you to Google search, “What is Juneteenth?” Wikipedia appears at the top of the results, before PBS, Vox, and other accredited news streams. You decide to start your research on the topic with Wikipedia. This choice takes you down a rabbit hole of other fascinating historical articles about the Emancipation Proclamation, American Negro Spirituals and the Galveston Islands. You spend a good amount of time researching all the events, policies, places and people that induced what is now known as Juneteenth. Like many inquisitive minds searching the web for information, you took all the content found on Wikipedia as evidence and did not consider fact-checking your source. Although the information came from an open-source you trusted that every article you read was accurate. According to Roy Rosenzweig, trusting open-sources as citations is a concern historians have against open-sourcing. While their objections may have some merit, he believes academic research and open-source can find a way to co-exist, not just in a state of consistent competition for the users’ attention.
Rosenzweig, an American historian, and digital history pioneer, argues the complexity of user-generated content as a substitution for academic original research. In “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past”, Rozenweig dissects the success and shortcomings of Wikipedia and how the software’s presence impacts historians’ work. Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia with content generated by public participation. The software has become a well-recognized reference for any and everything that draws your interest. The benefits of using Wikipedia are the fact it’s convenient, free, and, thanks to the General Public License (GPL), provides with users have the ability to share however they choose. There are even rules in place to keep the style, behavior, and content respectable. However, the accessibility and guidelines still do not quite prevent glitches and misinformation from circulating throughout the software.
Wikipedia is not regulated by an academic institution or accreditable group of scholars. Since there is no single author or editor, there is a lot of room for misinformation and plagiarism. Rosenzweig suggests the information could also be bias considering the lack of diversity in Wikipedia authors. Furthermore, Wikipedia is a platform that provides content created and edited by the public. Continuous edits are necessary since the history on Wikipedia is subject to change. However, participation is based on popularity, not every article gets the same attention for revisions. Regardless of the flaws in this model, students and knowledge seekers still prefer to use Wikipedia as a reference.
The trend of students using this open source over history books in a library is not going away and is not necessarily a problem. As Rosenzweig articulates in the reading, the problem is not the open-source, it’s the approach to using it. There are a few suggestions for historians and teachers to get the best outcomes from engaging with open-sources.
Most students stop their quest for research on a topic at Wikipedia’s website. They cite this website without verifying with other sources if the information they found is accurate. In this era of new media, people prefer, “predigested and prepared information without” the additional information to validate it. This is not solely a problem with Wikipedia. Teachers and historians should stress the importance in the critical analysis of all primary and secondary sources rather than isolate Wikipedia as the problem.
Wikipedia is free and accessible while scholarly journals are, well not. If historians have an issue with the misinformation sprinkled in with facts found on Wikipedia, if they believe open- sources bare fruit to poor, low-quality referencing, then why not make their historical work more accessible? Rozenweig suggests two options for historians to compete with the misinformation in open-sources: contribute and revise articles on Wikipedia or make professional scholarly journals more accessible. The brand of Wikipedia is that anyone can write and edit the information in good taste. If historians find the information on Wikipedia misleading, they can change it. Second, subscription-based historical journals are not accessible to everyone. Only people who are in the know with the means to afford it can benefit from the high-quality information available through these subscriptions. If scholars and academic institutions want to compete with open-sources like Wikipedia, then they need to become just as accessible and feasible for users. Otherwise, people will keep gravitating to what is most convenient for them, the free collaborative encyclopedia.
Historians can use open-sources like Wikipedia to their advantage. There does not have to be a competition between academic, single-authored research and content generated by public participation.

Sierra Solomon- Baltimorean, Historian and Yogi

Hello, my fellow historians and digital media enthusiasts.  My name is Sierra Solomon, a proud Baltimorean who now resides in the trenches of Reston, Virginia.  Two things that are helpful to know about me are: I’m a huge dog-lover and yogi. I have an amazing 6-month old fur-son (puppy) named Roshi.  Roshi is named after two great characters from two great animes, Naruto Shippuden and Dragon Ball Z. Aside from puppy training and anime binging, the remainder of my free time, aside from studying, is dedicated to yoga.  I practice Bikram yoga faithfully. Bikram is a style of yoga composed of twenty-six postures in a room set at 105 degrees. It may sound torturous, but it is a great way to relieve stress, meditate and energize you to tackle the hard work that comes with graduate school.  

Prior to enrolling in American University’s Public History program, I received a Bachelors in Political Science and Pan African Studies at Kent State University (Go Flashes!).  Before college, there was always a burning curiosity for understanding why and how race mattered in my quality of life and the way American society was structured based on institutionalized racism. Post my undergraduate studies, my experience in the workforce heightened my desire to understand, transcribe and share the Black experience to mass audiences in hopes of breaking down boundaries that impede social progress and high quality of life for all people. My journey to study Black experience narratives, specifically Black women, Black images and race history, is what brought me to American University. The question of how to utilize digital media to share these histories with the world is what brought me to register for this digital history course.  

There is no doubt that digital media has revolutionalized information production and delivery at a rapid pace. Digital media makes content more accessible and interactive with physical proximity to a physical insititute no longer a barrier for exchanging information.  Information can reach a wider, more diverse audience in real time, in comparison to traditional museums and historic sites. This placeless space for information sharing is an ideal tool for historians seeking to create shared authority and engage in contemporary history.  

The optimism of digital history is not why I enrolled in this course.  A grasping skepticism of whether digital media presents more harm than good as a base for information sharing.  How can scholars regulate and preserve historic content on a virtual platform? On a platform where anyone can drive a narrative and publish content for millions of people to see simultaneously, how can historicans publishing evidence-based research compete?  The public is bombarded with mass information night and day, what can historians do to present their work in a way that does not get drowned by the competing stories? I trust these questions will be resolved by the end of this course along with learning other tricks of the trade to improve my understanding of digital history.