By Hannah Kim
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an African American citizen, died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned him down by the neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Video footage of the event released on social media sparked protests globally over claims of police brutality and racial injustice towards African American people.
The large awareness of the incident can be attributed to social media, specifically the Black Lives Matter (BLM) hashtag. According to a recent poll by Pew Research, the BLM hashtag was used roughly 47.8 million times on Twitter following George Floyd’s death, making it the highest number of times the hashtag has ever been used.
The BLM hashtag was first created after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old teenage African-American boy in 2013. Since then, the hashtag has gained steady usage with more instances of police brutality like Ferguson being publicized on social media. The hashtag has also led to the establishment of the Black Lives Matter organization which aims “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”
The Washington Post reports how the BLM movement inspires a blending of “Black history and civil rights causes with art such as the film “13th” and the TV show “Black-ish”, as a few examples. The organization also influences political debates over immigration and policy initiatives like Campaign Zero which advocates for a reduction in police violence.
Though the BLM hashtag and movement help increase awareness of racial issues in America, there are downsides to social media usage. For example, there has been recent criticism over the #blackoutTuesday hashtag that was created to encourage users to post black squares on their social media accounts to show solidarity with the BLM movement. Though the intention was not harmful, the result has been a sea of black squares on social media feeds, which blocks out resources like petitions, articles, and campaigns that can help users contribute to the movement.
Celebrities like Lil Nas X have lashed out on their Twitter accounts, saying that the blackoutTuesday hashtag “is not helping us.” Kehlani, an American singer, agreed with Lil Nas X’s point, posting on Instagram that “we cannot disappear for a day” by posting black squares.
There are further noticed concerns: Anna Toledo, a senior at El Cerrito highschool notes how social media can make people disingenuous about the movement. “Peer pressure is a real thing,” she says. Though social media makes it easier to raise awareness of the racial issue, it is common for people to post black squares or BLM resources to “join the trend.”
On a broader scale, Princeton University Professor Omar Wasow, the co-founder of the pioneering social network BlackPlanet.com, says in New York Times interview that using social media to organize movements like BLM has downsides because “there isn’t a deep well of trust among demonstrators, as there was among people who did the first sit-ins of lunch counters and all knew each other.” He explains that though social networking can broaden the reach of a social movement, it can come with “weaker ties” between members of the movement.
Although there are limitations to the effectiveness of the BLM movement with social media usage, it is important to note how much modern technology has helped propel the movement historically. Unlike the current day where smartphones allow the public to record and share video evidence of police brutality instantaneously on social networks like Twitter or Instagram, citizens during the Civil Rights Movement relied on telephone communication to report hate crimes and the newspaper to stay informed. Television was one of the most developed technologies of the time that allowed citizens to view protests against segregation laws like Selma March, but it did not have the power to give the public the opportunity to directly engage with the movement compared to modern websites like change.org that allow users to sign petitions and address issues like police brutality.
There are concerns that the large attention the BLM movement has gotten sparks political polarization and violence due to protests, but ultimately, as co-founder of the BLM movement Opal Tometi says in a New Yorker interview, the BLM movement is “ focused on the main thing, which is people…”
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Johnny Silvercloud