How #BlackLivesMatter Turned Hashtags Into Action

Media researcher Deen Freelon explains how online activism makes an IRL impact.

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Complex Original

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There was a time when "hashtag activism" was an unquestionably derisive descriptor. This wasn't long ago. Even after Black Twitter played a crucial role in calling national attention to the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., media and observers frequently questioned whether dramatic online mobilization efforts could ever affect lasting, substantial change. That view was incorrect.

Media researchers Deen Freelon, Charlton McIlwain, and Meredith Clark, representing the Spencer Foundation or the Center for Media and Social Impact, studied 40.8 million tweets about the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its causes to confirm that online impact is, indeed, real. The result of their study, "Beyond the Hashtags: #Ferguson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the Online Struggle for Offline Justice," is a report  that covers social media activity spanning June 2014, just before the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, through May 2015, just before the death of Sandra Bland in Hempstead, Texas.

We spoke we spoke with Freelon, who is an assistant professor of communication at American University, about his team's findings, which include some definitive insights about hashtag activism and civic life in the 21st century.

What are the biggest revelations in this report?
First, there is the fact that the vast majority of the discussion was overwhelmingly positive, in favor of the movement and on the side of the protesters and victims.

Another is that a majority of the voices that are advocating for this are black voices. Obviously this is going to be a topic of black interest, but what is really important to me is the fact that the people who are referenced and retweeted the most are black.

It’s extremely important to understand that no one is all the way woke. Nobody is paying attention to everything or giving credit to everyone.

In the report, you examine certain differences between #BlackLivesMatter and what you call Young Black Twitter. What are the key distinctions there?
Activist communities are saying, look, there's a scourge of police killings against blacks; they would talk about the way in which the victims are portrayed as people who somehow deserved whatever they got.

In Young Black Twitter, we saw simpler, less complex statements. Assignment of systemic blame is something you just don’t see quite as much there.

The two biggest flashpoints for hashtag discussion and activity were (1) the day when the jury acquitted George Zimmerman and (2) the night when the grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson. So, moments when legal recourse for deceased victims fell apart. Why are those moments so much bigger than the initial, day-one mobilization efforts?
Unfortunately, data really doesn’t answer that. For some incidents, it takes time for information to percolate and spread, and for people to become aware. Eric Garner is a great case in point. If you look at the timeline, there’s barely a blip when it first happens, and then you compare that to all of the attention that ensued when Daniel Pantaleo​ was let off less than two weeks after Darren Wilson was. There's a sense in which the initial killing sort of starts communication, information, and outrage, but by the time the grand jury comes back with a decision, there's already this background narrative that causes everything to blow up much larger.

I think another part of it is just that high-profile criminal cases are a fixture of American news. The Rodney King decision in 1992, the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995—there's just always this heightened interest in whether justice goes this way or that way.

What’s with the severe underrepresentation of women among the mobilizing hashtags?
There are two women.

Tanisha Anderson and Yvette Smith.
Men are over-represented not only among victims, but among people lifted up the most as prominent people on Twitter. I don't want to come down too hard on the movement, because the people who are lifted up—whether it's in hashtag form or in voices heard—that's not really up to the movement; it’s the pattern of retweets and mentions that determines who will be most prominent, who is going to have the most attention.

There are a number of women fighting back with hashtags like #SayHerName and other, general exhortations for us to pay attention to what police are doing to women of color. That really bore fruit with some of the reactions to Sandra Bland in the summer of 2015, which is right after we ended our data collection; and the reaction to the girl who got manhandled (by a cop) at a pool party last summer. For that first year, however, we do not see the same attention for women as men.

It’s extremely important to understand that no one is all the way woke. Nobody is paying attention to everything or giving credit to everyone.

In the report, you cast BLM as a visual movement, powered by photos and moving images. What’s the difference between the visual power of BLM compared to the visual effect of the civil rights movement in the 20th century?
Until about 10 or 15 years ago, images spread primarily via mainstream news. Newspapers and television—that’s how protesters elevated their information from a local context to a national and international context. These protesters have always had a contentious relationship with the mainstream press, which has its own prerogative and its own biases.

Protesters have really taken back their ability to circulate their own narratives. Things that they want to project into the public sphere in ways that are not adulterated or changed by mainstream news outlets. We see in our data that they were quite successful at doing so: tweets from mainstream press are not circulated nearly as much as tweets from protesters are.

When Ferguson first went national on the evening of August 9, 2014, many of the first news stories written about Michael Brown’s death and the initial protests later that day included social media content in the articles. So even if you’re not a Twitter user, you could still see that content because you’re reading an article with embedded tweets, Instagram posts, Vines, and quotes from all of these platforms. But Twitter is one space where activists were able to circulate their perspectives on this without having to rely on mainstream media.

Black Lives Matter is not the first movement to address police brutality in a systematic way. What they did do is successfully shift the issue of police brutality from the margins where "Issues That We Should Pay More Attention To But Don’t" sorta live to the center of American political life. So now we see presidential candidates talking about it. We see the black-ish episode talking about this. We see the Beyoncé video for “Formation” addressing such events. This is something we haven’t seen in a long time.

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