Sitting in an Oakland bar in July 2013, Alicia Garza was incensed.
George Zimmerman had just been acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter (a lesser charge) in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The incident would forever change race relations in the U.S. – but in that moment, Garza was processing the verdict. Scrolling through her Facebook feed, she observed many blaming black Americans, refusing to face or even acknowledge the racism that infects so much of the country.
She decided to express her feelings in a manner typical for her generation: posting on social media. Garza’s post, “A Love Note to Black People,” ended with a simple conclusion: “Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” Patrisse Cullors, Garza’s Facebook friend who organized anti-police violence groups in Los Angeles, replied to Garza’s message by converting the phrase into a hashtag: “#BlackLivesMatter.”
With this simple online exchange, one of the most influential activist groups of the 21st century was born. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement quickly spread to other networks and became part of the zeitgeist, receiving dozens of accolades and awards – plus criticism and scorn.
If not for the power of social media, an organization as significant as BLM might not even exist. Unfortunately, online networks aren’t just fertile ground for creating and growing important cultural movements: they’re also places where opponents of change can spew negativity while safe behind their keyboards.
The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media Activism
Black Lives Matter highlights the unifying power of social media to expand the collective consciousness of social justice. According to numbers from a 2018 Pew Research Center report on social media, over half of all Americans report using social media to promote a social or political cause or find information about rallies and demonstrations.
But social media also comes with well-known downsides: haters and trolls have free reign to intimidate, and the information shared is often misleading or totally false. Perhaps most disturbing is the unwillingness of major social networks to regulate either factor.
DOPE Magazine spoke with several organizations created to promote social justice by advancing equality for people disadvantaged because of race, citizenship status and religion. While they all agreed on the importance of social media in advancing their causes, they also used specific examples to explain how the benefits don’t always outweigh the drawbacks.
Organizing the Cause — and its Enemies
Courtney Sebring is a Content Strategist at the Black Youth Project 100, a member-based organization working for freedom and justice for black people. She spoke of how BYP100’s New York chapter catalyzed the removal of a statue honoring Dr. J. Marion Sims, a 19th century gynecologist who advanced his field but also experimented on black female slaves, often operating on them without anesthesia. Women from BYP100 raised awareness of Sims’ dark history with a dramatic protest in the summer of 2017.
“The post went super viral on Facebook after the New York chapter took very powerful action,” Sebring says. “So many people cared about this action and felt seen.” Their demonstration also drew media coverage from major outlets including The Washington Post and Essence.
The following spring, the city moved the statue honoring Dr. Sims from Central Park to his gravesite in Brooklyn. But organizing through social media can also expose a group to people who don’t agree with their cause, and the consequences of that can go far beyond negative comments. Ani Zonneveld, founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), says she received insults and threats on her life after conservative Muslims found out that she – a woman – was going to be leading a prayer at an upcoming MPV conference in Malaysia.
“There was a lot of death threats towards me … like her blood is halal – you know, purposable.” – Ani Zonneveld, founder and president of Muslims for Progressive Values
“A right-wing organization basically took that and Googled me, found [information about] me leading men and women in prayer … so they went berserk,” Zonneveld shared. “It really riled up the hate. There was a lot of death threats towards me … like her blood is halal – you know, purposable.”
Activists aren’t the only ones subject to trolling. According to Pew, 41 percent of Americans have personally been subject to harassment online, and two-thirds have witnessed others being digitally harassed. People with malicious intent don’t have to resort to explicit attacks – social media makes it easy for information to be weaponized to advance a specific agenda or ideology. It’s now known that over ten million tweets and Facebook updates from Russian troll farms were published in the lead-up to the 2016 election, to spread fake news designed around contentious issues like gun rights and racial violence.
Information can also be harnessed against people at a much more individual level. The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIP-NLG), a Boston-based organization, provides technical and legal assistance to community-based immigrant groups. Associate Director Paromita Shah says it’s not uncommon for police investigators and prosecutors to use social media to force people into narratives that fit their case.
“One thing we haven’t had much of a conversation about is how it’s [social media] being used to bulk up the power of a criminal justice system that is not invested in the rights of the people.” – Paromita Shah, associate director for The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild
“One thing we haven’t had much of a conversation about is how it’s [social media] being used to bulk up the power of a criminal justice system that is not invested in the rights of the people,” Shah says.
“All that data [from social media profiles] can be used to turn out a profile really quickly, and it’s usually not used to paint generous pictures … I see it being used to make people look like somebody they are not, used to turn a young man hanging out with friends to look like he’s in a gang or someone who is breaking the law.”
Data from Facebook’s annual transparency reporting shows that government requests for information on users nearly quadrupled between 2013 and 2018, growing from 11,000 requests between January and June 2013 to 42,466 requests between January and June of last year. Police surveys report that four in five departments use social media to help solve crimes. Social media has collared many dangerous criminals, but as the reach of these networks increases, mistakes and wrongful accusations involving digital perceptions of people are also on the rise.
Where’s the Regulation?
Most believe that social media networks are dropping the ball when it comes to regulating and policing those who harass social justice organizations online. After receiving threats on her life, Zonneveld was stunned at Facebook’s response:
“We complained to Facebook, and then after several days, Facebook wrote back and said ‘Well, it seems like it’s a very lively and invigorating conversation’,” she says. In her opinion, verified organizations that do positive work should receive priority status when reporting harassment – almost like a blue check mark for complaints about intimidation.
Sebring agrees. “It is crucial for these platforms to not allow content that furthers harm to us to remain public, and to listen when the people reporting it are the people experiencing that risk of harm,” she says.
If the networks continue failing to regulate themselves adequately, signs point to government intervention sooner rather than later. When asked on a podcast if tech’s self-regulation era should come to an end, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi says “it probably should.”
Activist groups online face another big challenge: converting digital sentiment into real-world action. The rise of social media has made it too easy to click a button to “like” or “share” a post promoting causes in which a person believes. You’d think that these actions are a gateway to real-world involvement in activism, but data shows the exact opposite. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that expressions of public support for a social cause online were correlated with lower levels of subsequent donations of time and money. We know that correlation does not equate to causation, but it is grounds for further study.
What’s Next for Social Media?
Two huge events this year look poised to re-shape the narrative about social media. In March, parts of the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand were broadcast live on Facebook, first by the shooter and later by fans and supporters. Facebook was widely slammed for allowing the video to be live-streamed for 17 minutes and re-shared multiple times.
On Easter Sunday, a coordinated wave of bombings in major cities of Sri Lanka killed at least 250 people. In order to prevent the spread of misinformation and “false news” stories, the government banned the use of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube and Snapchat for over 24 hours. Locals criticized the drastic move, but others viewed it as a dose of much-needed regulation for tech companies that appear too arrogant to do it themselves – an op-ed by Kara Swisher, published in The New York Times two days after the ban, put it succinctly: “Sri Lanka Shut Down Social Media. My First Thought Was ‘Good.’”
Clearly, social media will continue to serve an important role in the spread of activism and causes designed to promote social justice, but there are still major strides needed in the regulation and monitoring of these sites before groups promoting positive change can leverage their true power.