Internet & Web

BTM -Black Tweets Matter

Using the case study of #BlackLivesMatter, this paper investigates the use of social media in political activism and draws conclusions from such around the effectiveness and ongoing use of socmedia more broadly in activism.
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    #BTM  –   Black Tweets Matter   ABSTRACT Paul Bugeja   Social Media and Change   Using the case study of #BlackLivesMatter, this paper investigates the use of social media in political activism and draws conclusions from such around the effectiveness and ongoing use of socmedia more broadly in activism.  Page | 1 I NTRODUCTION  The inability to effectively disseminate messages to a wider audience to swell numbers and build momentum for change around a cause can be fatal for activist movements. It thus holds, as per McL uhan’s creed, the “the medium is the message”, with communication technologies used by activists as much key to their success as their passion and the importance of issues they are trying to address. Such is supported historically, from newspaper and television coverage of the 60’s US Civil Rights Movement (CRM) to distribution of the homemade VHS tape of the Rodney King LAPD beating to the incisive use of the affordances of social media by #BlackLivesMatter (#BLM). Twitter for message distribution and group building, Instagram for video posting of inciting incidents or protest and Facebook for organising have all helped make socmedia a go-to tool for activism in the new millennium. In assessing implications of socmedia on activism, with specific reference to #BlackLivesMatter, this paper offers insights into social media activism before making broader conclusions about socmedia’s influence and potential for building and sustaining activist’s  momentum to assist in achieving their goals.  Page | 2 A CTIVISM :   S PARKED BY A P ERSON ,   S PREADS L IKE W ILD -F IRE VIA P LATFORMS  While digital comms and socmedia have become ubiquitous facets of modern life, in terms of activism Castells notes such is still “usually triggered by a spark of indignation either related to a specific event or to a peak of disgust with the actions of the rulers" (Castells, 2012). Or, as activist DeRay Mckesson emphatically states, “It's broken bodies… a hashtag didn't call us into the street. It was Mike's body for four and a half hours, that was real ” (Friedersdorf 2016).  At its core, activism is about passion and commitment to a specific cause with the aim of engendering in the broader community a deep emotional resonance to bring about change. Building on Habermas’s theory on the functioning of the public sphere—  a domain of social life where public opinion is formed  —  it stands that any action affecting one individual in that sphere can lead to public discussion or activism to bring about change. The digital age and rise of socmedia platforms feeds directly into Habermas’s theory insofar as offering a double -edged sword around the success of activism: on the one hand being a “weak public” because socmedia does not give individuals any real power in shaping decision making over the issue they are engaged with; on the other socmedia  being a “strong public” due to i ts distributive ability to raise awareness and facilitate protest in real life (IRL). Theoretically, socmedia has come to redefine modern activism for a variety of reasons: 1.   Potential for scale  means it offers previously unimaginable reach, expanding opportunities for participation and boosting IRL turnout. 2.   Net neutrality and algorithms, care of digital disruption and the constantly changing media landscape, means once-powerful legacy gatekeeper authority is waning: “ New media have enabled social movements to no longer be dependent upon possibly hegemonic mass media, but to express their ideology in their own way, through their own channels” (Wijers 2013). Wortham  (2016) also notes the “…ability of interactive digital platforms to record and broadcast events, as well as fact-check what news media say, has created a potent counterbalance to traditional news reporting” . 3.   It follows, that the capacity for intimacy and personalisation means information shared via platforms is potentially more persuasive  because it comes from plentiful primary sources  —both in our own personal networks and from “ trusted connections” we make as a result of observing other’s socmedia patterns, rituals and forms  —  as opposed to legacy gatekeepers with conceivably hidden ulterior motives.  Page | 3 4.   Socmedia’s immediacy and cross-technological nature mean messages travel faster and more efficiently , creating rapid groundswell. 5.   The ease  (at least in less-censored polities) with which socmedia is accessed and utilised has further democratised activism as those far removed from “ground zero” of a  cause are instilled with the feeling they are participating, encouraging both engagement and buy-in. With this also comes the ability of individuals to share their own stories  —  to be include d, helping prevent “erasure” (Parker 2016).   6.   Online anonymity  and “net neutrality”  (whereby ISPs must treat internet communications without bias) have brought into activism marginalised minorities who feel they can act with less concern over IRL reprisal.  7.   There has been a  reduction in cost and time barriers to entry alongside increased fundraising capacity. 8.   The creation of   flatter, more democratised structure  due to its ability to decentralise activist operations, a departure from once- hierarchical movements with “top - down” mandates.   At the heart of much of this lies a once inconsequential keyboard character  —  the hashtag. Since 2007 when Chris Messina suggest ed using it to define group activity on Twitter, “#” has become the star of online activism due to its capacity to act as “ both text and metatext, information and tag, pragmatic and metapragmatic speech … deictic, indexical  —  yet unlike other such signs that point elsewhere, hashtags point to themselves, to their own dual role in ongoing discourse ” ( Rambukkana 2015). This is summarised neatly by metaphors such as McKesson ’s   “ hashtag as digital paperclip ”  linking events together, or MIT Center for Civic Media ’s  Ethan Zuckerman noting “…s ocial media’s significance is that it is recognising different incidents that might have gone unnoticed and sewing them together as a coherent whole”  (Day 2015). While opinion on socmedia and activism is largely positive, opposing views exist. Journalist and pundit Malcolm Gladwell expressed such in a 2010  New Yorker     piece, “ Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. ”  At the heart of his thesis as to why socmedia is not the panacea for more powerful activism is that unlike the CRM where “ one crucial fact about  Page | 4 the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter … was their relationship with one another ” (Gladwell, 20101), socmedia is built around weak ties that seldom result in high-risk activism but rather clicktivism” or “slacktivism”, poor substitutes for the real thing. Thus, while social networks ostensibly increase participation, they inadvertently lessen motivation. Gladwell also sees the absence of hierarchy in socmedia-centred activism as further diminishing its cause  —  lack of central authority and reliance on consensus is too loose to offer the concentrated effort required for success. This less-than-favourable view is supported by a range of negatives that can come with the use of socmedia in activism, including: 1.   Potential for filter bubbles or echo chambers, leading to staleness, introspection and potential narrowing of both message and dissemination; 2.   Misuse and abuse of platforms by opposing actors or mischievous trolls with the aim of doxing, identity theft, misrepresentation and the dissemination of false information; 3.   Overwhelming demands of a 24/7 “ internet that never sleeps” , stretching resources and personnel; 4.   Algorithms and their inadvertent roles as gatekeepers; 5.   Digital segregation, leaving certain actors without access; 6.   Security and privacy concerns over authorities monitoring social media, leading to questions over anonymity. From this, it can be argued that the perceived efficacy of socmedia for activists is not so assured. Examining #BlackLivesMatter and how it leverages socmedia will provide more practical insights.
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