The Role and Effectiveness of Digital Activism in Demanding Justice for George Floyd
On May 25th, George Floyd, a Black American, accused of using a fake $20 bill, lost his life to police violence (Holly). The events that led up to his death were filmed by 17-year-old, Darnella Frazier. What followed next, was a wave of digital activism to demand justice for his death. In this essay, I will be evaluating the chronological build-up and effectiveness of digital activism in demanding justice for George Floyd. It is important to realize Digital activism often risks turning into slacktivism which is characterized by performativity and lack of commitment to a movement outside of the digital sphere. For the scope of this essay, effectiveness would be characterized as holding the murderers accountable and the mobilization of society to dismantle systemic racism.
Circulation of the video
To understand the spread of this online movement it’s important to understand the social media ecosystem prior to the movement. This movement takes place during a pandemic and lockdown, where the world’s operations were largely forced to shift online due to social distancing requirements. People have turned towards social media to stay connected. Since the pandemic started, social media engagement has increased by 60% and Twitter daily users increased by 23% (Holmes). This increased connectivity facilitated an information dispersion atmosphere that was already largely in use to update people on the virus and to remind them to follow appropriate health guidelines. Coronavirus news dispersion revived political activism spheres as well; The rise in negative news intake created an atmosphere of “doom scrolling,” that thrives on the cyclical relationship of anxiety and social media use (Ramsden).
Now, focusing on the video, the video quickly spread across Twitter and the Black lives matter hashtag resurfaces onto the trending page. Why was this video different than the others? What led to its spread? Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who studies police brutality footage, shares how she could see both (Dereck Chauvin and George Floyd’s) faces looking into the camera. Usually in police brutality footage from bodycams people don’t see the officers, which reduces the perceived accountability factor. Ava DuVernay urges for the need to amplify the identification of cops and shifts to the people to say it is our job to hold them accountable since the government won’t. She talks about how the video-enabled us to know the names of the cops, unlike in previous instances where people usually only remembered the name of the victim. Watching the murderer’s face as he murdered an innocent Black man adds to the impact the video had on people. The high-level cognitive buildup of emotions such as anger and anxiety triggers a state of mobilization, which in the context of digital media has been shown to drive information sharing (Stieglitz). The triggering video content along with the anxiety buildup from the uncertainty of the pandemic updates pushed people into a “terror management” mode. The terror management theory suggests that when our mortality or perception of a just world view is threatened we turn to a larger social entity to find our purpose. The rapid spread of the video across social media platforms propelled people to take action.
Ava DuVernay emphasizes the need to remember the cops’ names and identity, which was later seen with a rise in posts identifying the cops involved, reshaping the digital activism discourse. Social media networks offer connectivity and the ability to advocate/share your opinions, making it a zone where common people like you and me can analyze footage, share our findings, and steer the discourse of a movement or scrutinize the justice system.
Hundreds of such videos were found on video sharing platforms like TikTok later on in the movement. These videos acted the same way and aimed to hold the law enforcement accountable and acted as a counter-voice to the mainstream media narrative of disruptive protests. The TikTok videos exposed how in some cases the police incited violence and that protests were largely peaceful.
As more people joined the movement, mobilized by the video, the music industry pledged to disconnect from social media and observe silence in solidarity with Black lives. The goal was to disrupt the daily social media routine and to encourage people to reconnect with their communities. 12.2 million posts flooded the Blackout Tuesday hashtag and people paused their routinely social media posts (Ahlgrim). Amongst a surge of information and repetitive infographic sharing a day to stop the show the Blackout, Tuesday movement was meant to remind people of the cause and call on people to join in on the movement by identifying themself as an ally.
But why did they choose to use a post on a personal account as their preferred form of advocacy? And why Instagram? Firstly, Instagram has become a destination for protests since the users are largely teens which makes them more open and receptive to new information and social justice action items. Moreover, the ability to share visual information (pictures and videos) has a greater impact in investing users emotionally (Ho).
Now, let’s explore the different social properties of social media functions: liking, commenting, sharing, and posting. “Liking” a post is an easy nod or affirmation. “Commenting” on a post is characterized by a public conversation, powerful emotion, and limited visibility to the poster and their community (Seiter). Posting on your story is characterized by allying yourself based on information you found and is temporary in nature. A post on your personal account is permanent until you delete, and you take sole accountability for the post. Unlike stories which are so easy to share and don’t usually involve much accountability from the sharer as it does from the post composer, a post on a personal account doesn’t disappear within 24 hours.
Although, well-intentioned this flooding of black pictures ran the risk of performativity. It allowed people to think that their work was done once they made a social media statement, when in reality that’s just the least required from a person who supports the fight for equality. The performativity is visible with brands like Starbucks that showed solidarity online, but later went on to make an internal decision that prohibited employees from wearing pins supporting the Black Lives Matter movement (Karlis). Moreover, many people ended up using #blm instead of #blackouttuesday causing slacktivist posts to take over a hashtag that people used to access information. However, a quick counter post circulated reminding everyone to stick to using the latter hashtag and also going beyond just posting a black square (ahlgrim).
The development of the separate #blackouttuesday hashtag also allowed for a quick headcount during the movement. With over 12 million posts the hashtag reminded people that a large number of people have joined the movement, further mobilizing activists in the demand for justice.
“Trending” of the Movement
Unlike posts, sharing has a lesser commitment. Based on past quarantine Instagram trends an attempt was made to use a tag-5-people-drawing-challenge trend to spread awareness about George Floyd’s death. The trend required people to reshare #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd on Instagram stories and tag 5 others. This easy participatory culture takes away from the gravity of the movement. It made justice seem like a superficial trend. These trends removed from the actual issue and didn’t provide any information of value other than “hey I support human rights” which should be a given and shouldn’t even need for you to post about. It’s not a simple issue where you can put a hashtag that takes no material cost form you and call it a day. Black people actually found the chain story offensive, and saw it as people trying to look “woke” or paint a certain picture of themselves on social media (Mensah). On social media every post you share builds your identity which risks turning a movement into a mere aesthetic. People projected their activist image to show they are on someone’s side to be spared of critique (Mensah). In itself, trends are defined by a quick outburst of posts within a short period of time, which brings to question the sustainability of the movement.
Moreover, on TikTok, artists shirked the responsibility of talking about the topic by joining in on a video chain trend where they held a BLM fist as a sound played. Instead of voicing their thoughts or creating an original post they absorbed any responsibility by simply joining onto a chain. The irony of that aesthetic they built is that the same sound they used to show solidarity, today has been turned into a joke by people. People now use the sound to mock the Black Lives Matter movement by saying how they would act if they see a Black person once quarantine is over. The influencers didn’t address the topic seriously and poorly influenced their followers.
Domination of the movement by non-Black voices
This trending has in a way drowned out Black voices from the movement. To understand this we need to acknowledge that Black users only make up 12% of social media users. This is why some of the insensitive trending acts came to be as they were operated largely by non-Blacks to feel good about their contribution. Similarly, the blackout Tuesday movement drowned Black voices instead of amplifying them. An example of this is seen with a non-Black influencer who posted a Black square and was later criticized by Black people for posting it. Her response to the criticism led to a chain of arguments which is contradictory to the goal of amplifying Black voices (Brunner). She argued about her solidarity with the BLM movement with Black people.
Similarly, other non-Black influencers exploited the BLM movement for “clout.” Influencers expand their followers and reach by staying relevant to social media discussion. To project their image on social media celebrities like Madison Beer staged photo shoots during a protest. They used the movement as a backdrop to look “woke” on social media. What gives rise to this issue is that: social media pages gain attraction when sticking to a niche and for many influencers the niche is themselves. non-Black influencers whose branding revolves around themselves have a hard time recognizing that this issue is not about them and should not make the movement about their public image.
Celebrity Lili Rinehart used an LGBTQ + BLM intersectionality post to phrase her allyship as “Although I have never announced it publicly before, I am a proud bisexual woman. And I will be joining this protest” (Brunner). She insinuated that she is a part of a marginalized group and centred the conversation around her distracting from the movement. Her attempt at empathy seemed more self centred than allyship. Some influencers even went to the extent of romanticizing the movement by making statements like “no tourists. the rich people left. the streets filled with people wanting justice and liberation. welcome to the best summer in New York” (Brunner). This tweet reduced the struggles of the black people and made it seem like they had a choice, and just went to show how non-Black people have the freedom to participate as and when they feel. Non-Black people who dominate these conversations influence public opinions about the movement. Every post they make under the pretext of the movement reflects back onto the BLM movement.
Protests and Petitions
To further understand the movement beyond performativity it’s important to recognize that short term and long term impacts are influenced by the connectivity between the digital and physical realm. This movement takes place during a pandemic so for many people attending protests wasn’t an option, and the closest they could get to bringing justice was through signing petitions. Along with the connectivity fostered by social media, the link-sharing feature of Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter enabled users to add links to their profiles. Since the link-sharing restrictions on Instagram only limited users to share 1 link, many people became creative with overcoming this barrier by creating personal link trees that signalled the causes they stood for.
Petitions were largely helpful in consolidating the many communities that had formed around this issue into 1 large community by giving the movement direction.
People also tried to use petitions to validate the #blackoutuesday movement by assuming links were a step away from performativity. While petitions still are performative to some extent, a study researching the connection between fundraising and petitions concluded that people are more likely to donate to a particular cause if they sign a petition (Lee).
While the petitions gave a sense of direction, the video circulation and validation from a large number of people fueled protests. Using social media as a tool to educate and mobilize the public, called for people to go beyond performativity after blackouttuesday.
The protests and petitions worked together to pressurize the law enforcement to charge Derek Chauvin, with 2nd degree murder and the other officers with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Moreover, the Democrats introduced a police reform bill to hold the police more accountable and reform the accountability aspect of the policing system (Holly).
Social media connected people and brought on a mass movement across the nation to hold Derek Chauvin, a man who had 18 complaints against him prior to the murder of George Floyd, accountable.
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