Many parallels have been drawn between the nationwide protests against police brutality and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. However, one key difference is the use of social media. Protests are now organized, debated, and reported on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook, among others. Social media has become a bridge between activists and the general public; it takes out the middleman of professional news.
Many millennials and teens, such as myself, look towards social media for information on what’s happening in the world, whether or not a major crisis is underway. So it is no surprise people are using social media to inform themselves during this movement. Social media is especially important now since media companies are not reporting the full picture.
Technology allows people to make waves without waiting for articles to be written or news sources to cover injustices. Darnella Frazier, for example, is a 17-year-old Minneapolis girl with a phone and Facebook account. She recorded and posted the video of the murder of George Floyd, which started a worldwide movement. She is maybe the ultimate example of how teens can use social media to make police and society more accountable and demand justice. Six teen girls named Jade Fuller, Nya Collins, Zee Thomas, Kennedy Green, Emma Rose Smith, and Mikayla Smith were able to organize a 10,000 person protest on June 4th in Nashville using Instagram and Twitter. It was the biggest BLM protest Nashville had seen.
Had videos of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd not circulated online, justice would not have been served. Arbery’s murder was swept under the rug until it went viral online. It is explicitly clear that his assailants were only charged with murder because the video went viral online. Ahmaud Arbery was murdered on February 23 and nobody was arrested; then the video of his death went viral beginning May 5th. On May 7 Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael were finally arrested. While Arbery and Floyd’s assailants were charged with murder, social media users weren’t done. The power of spreading awareness about racial injustice has been felt. Technology and social media weren’t available during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but now its power helps us demand justice against police brutality and systemic racism.
I have heard many older adults mock young people and their use of these platforms, writing off online activism as useless and unhelpful. But online activism truly is a previously untapped resource that is changing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It is one of the main reasons why so many Americans, even Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, now say they agree that “Black lives matter.”
Online activism was important during the burning of the Amazon rainforest in 2019, the ICE detention center backlash in 2018 and 2019, and now is indispensable to an even bigger-scale movement. High schoolers are able to influence nationwide change, as Frazier did in Minneapolis. Nya Collins, one of the teens who organized the huge BLM event, explained that the six girls in Memphis had all just recently met on Twitter. “That’s how easy it is to do something like this,” she said in an interview. Students now can easily spread petitions to be signed on websites and then posted and reposted. After videos showing police brutality go viral, users study them to research the police who are shown misbehaving. They are finding badge numbers, names, even addresses, as they work to demand accountability and justice. A similar effort is the Plain View Project, a website dedicated to finding racist posts that cops write on Facebook, in order to expose them.
Social media also has the incredible power to inform the public about the locations of protests. It’s free and works worldwide (that photo at top is from the UK). Gone are the days when protests were organized by specific smaller organizations. Social media is at the root of how people are spreading awareness. Often these days it is not even clear whether a major demonstration has a formal organizational backer. Activism is much more bottom-up.
TikTok is a huge newer platform that young people are using to spread otherwise-hidden information. The BLM hashtag there has over 4 billion views. The #justiceforgeorgefloyd hashtag has over a billion. Some TikTok users use 60-second videos to educate, others use 15-second videos to spread valuable information. The biggest creator on TikTok, Charli D’Amelio of Norwalk, Connecticut, posts information about fundraisers in her bio, along with petitions which she encourages her 63 million followers to sign.
Popular K-pop band BTS donated $1 million to the BLM movement and posted about it on Twitter. Their 26 million Twitter followers matched that figure in one day after the hashtag #matchamillion went viral worldwide.
Technology platforms can change the movement for racial injustice by helping create awareness, generate discussion, and raising money. When apps like Instagram have over one billion active users, and TikTok has 800 million, it’s no surprise we are seeing today’s conversation over racial inequality, and the powerful change that is coming about as a result.