By Genevieve Kotz
At a predominately white institution (PWI), black students can often feel isolated or frustrated with the lack of black community surrounding them on campus.
“Being black at a PWI radicalized you real quick,” Tatiana Laing, 22, said in an e-mail interview.
Laing, a senior at American University, is an active member of Black Twitter, a virtual community of black users engaged in discussing issues of interest to the black community and bringing about sociopolitical changes.
“Even when I go to a PWI, I can go onto Black Twitter and be inundated with anecdotes, jokes, news and commentary made for and by black people,” Laing explained. “It’s the greatest.”
Black Twitter became a prominent phenomenon following the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
Padriac Kane, a graduate student focusing on media and education at Syracuse University, said he personally noticed the phenomenon of Black Twitter through trending hashtags like #HandsUpDontShoot, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #TrayvonMartin. He said Twitter is a modern-day technological force that allows the suppressed black voices to be heard.
“They had the power to start conversation,” Kane said of the hashtags, “Not only within in the Black Twitter community but beyond.”
In a study published by Deen Freelon of American University, Charlton D. McIlwain of New York University and Meredith D. Clark of the University at North Carolina with the Center for Media & Social Impact at AU, they tracked the rise in Black Lives Matter through social media to track how it developed.
They found that social media posts were the main force behind spreading Michael Brown’s story and that social media allowed activists to tell narratives that were being ignored by the mainstream media. The study focused on groups discussing police brutality, from black youth to conservatives.
The study found that the Black Lives Matter hashtag started being used politically following the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 by the neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. However, #BlackLivesMatter did not gain serious traction until several months after the death of Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer and whose body was left in the street for several hours. The hashtag became more popular as it was developed from just a hashtag into a movement, when Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and others created chapter-based activist organizations under the name.
The study noted that Black Lives Matter is an example of how social media uniquely benefits oppressed populations.
“The general idea here is that social media helps level a media playing field dominated by pro-corporate, pro-government, and (in the United States) anti-Black ideologies,” the study said.
Kane also noted how social media helped provide a platform for oppressed voices.
“It has become a mass form of self communication for the Black community,” Kane said in an e-mail interview. “Especially during a time where we have governmental and corporate figures seeking to limit Black voices.”
Kane said he believes that Black Twitter is an essential network for young black people in the current age.
“Twitter has given Black people a space to tell their own stories, and not through the lens of white America,” Kane said.
Chelsea Burwell, a graduate student at Georgetown University, said Black Twitter fosters creativity and camaraderie by creating a place of diversity in a digital community.
“I just imagine the reconnecting of a big family tree, like a massive family reunion for the African Diaspora,” Burwell mused in an e-mail interview.
Burwell said Black Twitter celebrates the black identity, through hashtags like #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackExcellence, which encourages pride in one’s identity even in a oppressive society that makes them feel otherwise.
“Black Twitter is lit,” Burwell said. “The creation of this community is beyond dope.”
Burwell got involved with the DMV chapter of Black Lives Matter after a jury chose to not indict Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown. For her, activism was also sparked by feeling suppressed as a black female scholarly voice at a majority-white graduate program. While Burwell said she is not as heavily involved in social media activism as others, she does consider herself a part of the Black Twitter community.
The current racial activism movement, Burwell said, has helped her feel less afraid to speak out against microaggressions and challenge people’s racist tendencies.
“I am so proud of the unapologetic nature of this movement. My pride in my identity, specifically my blackness and womanhood is at an all-time high,” Burwell said. “It’s lit and beautiful to be black in 2016.”
Laing, who also got more involved in activism following Michael Brown’s death, said she felt outraged after the non-indictment of Wilson, who shot Brown at least six times. Her response, Laing said, was to organize that outrage and educate others at her university.
As a result, Laing, along with AU students Chante Harris, Angelica Pagan, Shannon Trudge and Fito Akinrinade, created the Darkening, an on-campus group aimed at dismantling white supremacy and advocating for racial justice for the black community to create an accepting environment for all students. The group has staged protests after racist posts were spread on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app and has hosted events and teach-ins for students and allies on ending anti-blackness.
Laing said she views this current racial-justice movement as not separate from ones before it.
“The work that our elders did in the 60’s did not end racism – it barely dented white supremacy,” Laing said. “This is just a continuation of their fight.”
Social media itself hasn’t necessarily resurged the civil-rights movement, but has acted as a tool to make information more accessible and communication more open. Communities across the nation – and across the world – can interact and communicate through social media platforms. During the Ferguson protests, Palestinian activists tweeted advice to protestors on how to treat tear gas exposure, according to the study.
“Twitter is the perfect place to educate and have discourse all the time,” Laing said.
Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor in the communication department at Syracuse University who focuses on social media, said Twitter has become such an important platform for activism because of its functionality. Since many users have public profiles, it fosters an open dialogue expanding past people’s local virtual communities, despite having a smaller population of active users with 320 million as opposed to Facebook’s 1.59 million.
Unlike Facebook, in which people generally stick to friending people they know in real life, Twitter users regularly follow and engage with people they do not know personally in real life.
“It’s a more open network and therefore, we’re more exposed to things happening outside our immediate world,” Grygiel said.
And unlike Facebook, Twitter works much more regularly in real time. Tweets appear on users’ timelines chronologically and are not based on algorithms, as Facebook is.
“Real time conversations can turn into real time reporting and real time action and democracy in action literally because of the transparency and the ability to communicate,” Grygiel said about Twitter, as seen in the case in which Michael Brown’s story was spread through social media quicker than it was through the mainstream news media. Grygiel noted that Twitter is also readily utilized because of users’ easy access through their smartphones.
For Kane, Twitter is essential for activism because of its large user base. Millions of people use the app everyday and a majority of those users fall into the age group of 18 to about 29, Kane said.
Twitter also gives users the platform to talk about more complex and nuanced conversations, involving racism, white oppression and police brutality, Kane said.
Overall, Kane said he has seen more positives than negatives with social media. The main downfall he noticed with Black Twitter is the reaction from those outside the community. Kane said he has noticed people accusing Black Twitter with playing the race card.
“In reality, Black voices have never been privileged to stand on the same platform as the majority for others to hear their voice,” Kane explained.
Grygiel explained that a downside to social media is that with visibility, there is a risk of harassment, doxxing (when an individual’s private information is published on the Internet with malicious intent) and bullying.
“You don’t even have to be on social media to have your video captured and disseminated,” Grygiel explained.
“Social media also allows people to hide behind problematic dogma and attacks,” Burwell said.
Trolling as well as triggering subjects are also prominent, which is why Burwell encourages practice self-care and knowing when to disconnect for a user’s own personal sake.
“Social media is a whirlpool of delusion and abrasive wake-up calls at times,” Burwell said. “That’s when I have to sign-off and just put my phone down.”
Social media is an important part of activism in terms of communication, but it is certainly not the only part. Laing, who said she prefers a balance of both social media and face-to-face communication, said she believes social media will not become more prominent because of the importance of face-to-face communication.
Social media, Laing said, does not replace direct action, but instead acts as a medium to help organize the direct action.
Burwell also stressed the importance of in-person communication as a way to keep it from losing the emotional touch.
“Policy change must happen face-to-face,” Burwell said. “Sentiment often gets lost in social media.”
But Burwell still said social media, in tandem with the unheard narratives of oppressed groups, is a vital part of activism. She compared social media as a bullhorn amplifying the voices in the back of the room, allowing the voices of movements like Black Lives Matter to be heard. When you have a voice, Burwell said, you know you have power.
“We are saving ourselves,” Burwell said. “We are our own heroes and heroines.”