top of page
  • Alisha Grech

(No)Bodies in the Streets

The Power of Social Media Activism in a Post-#MeToo Era

Spoken for the CDTPS FOOT conference, February 17th, 2022

While we are virtual, I would like to acknowledge the tribes and communities that have made this communication possible. Zoom’s headquarters are standing on Muwekma Ohlone Territory. The corporate headquarters of Twitter is occupying the lands of the Ramaytush people. Instagram’s headquarters sits on the lands of the Costanoan and Ohlone peoples. While connecting us, these capitalist products continue to ignore their responsibilities for justice and reparation.

This presentation will contain descriptions of police violence, racism, protests, weaponized whiteness, and white supremacy. Events such as the Philadelphia Black Lives Matter tear-gassing will be mentioned. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor will be focused on in a detailed, descriptive way. Police brutality, gender violence, whitewashing, racism, microaggressions, physical violence and white supremacy will also be discussed.

This presentation will also highlight and celebrate the work of several Black founded activist groups. Groups such as the original Me Too, founded by Tarana Burke in 2006, Black Lives Matter, founded by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi in 2013, as well as Say Her Name, founded by African American Policy Forum and the Center for Intersectionality and Policy Studies in the year 2014. Without the labour and vision of these people, we would not be where we are today.

Art by Louise Fuller

Twelve years ago, CNN reported that more Americans receive their news from social media sites than they do from cable news, newspapers, or radio. This is a trend that has steadily continued upwards. As of 2021, the Pew Research Centre found that eight in ten Americans get their news from social media. Meaning, more people favour sites such as Twitter, Instagram or Facebook to stay up to date on current events, rather than traditional print media, news websites, television or radio programs. But why?

To Professor and founder of BlackPlanet, Omar Wasow explains that social media allows us to “see a reality that has been entirely visible to some people and invisible to others. As those injustices become visible, meaningful change follows.” Not only are we, as a species, using social media to connect with friends, share selfies and keep in touch with family—we are also utilizing it to network, share ideas, collaborate with like-minded individuals, and give voice to experiences otherwise left unseen on more traditional avenues of media.

Beyond being used to share trivial news of the day, pictures of one’s dog, or pictures of a meal one is having, social media is most often used for activism. In the 21st century, activism has become inextricably linked to social media, through its widespread and pervasive usage.

In other words, much like a physical demonstration in a city square—if you want someone to hear about a social cause or issue, you turn to the place that everyone is. In this case, today, that is Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook.

Although, the fight for social change does not merely take place in the comments section of a social media post.

In 2022, it has become clear that activism is multi-modal, meaning, that it is characterized by several different means of activity: social media and physical activism. Rather than be regarded as separate, opposing entities, these two facets of contemporary activism are linked to each other to present a meaningful and pervasive activist practice—affecting those not only in the streets but also those behind the screens. When activists participate in both modes of activism, the traditional boundaries of it become blurred, allowing for more widespread, accessible, and knowledge-based forms of protest to arise.

Although, similarly to the multi-modal activist movements of the past, such as the #MeToo, the inclusion of social media in an activist practice leaves room for possible justice impeding disruptions such as: popular culture trendiness and performative allyship.

In 2006, the original Me Too movement was born on Myspace, from the fingertips of Tarana Burke—a social activist and community organizer. She longed to empower women of colour who had been sexually abused. However, in 2017, the Me Too movement took on a whole new life of its own—a life that heavily focused on the experiences of white, cisgender Hollywood actresses and professionals. In her book, Me, Not You: The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism, Alison Phipps writes: “the pull of whiteness is strong,” that the #MeToo movement should have been called “‘Me, not you’ instead of ‘Me Too.’”

While #MeToo necessitated important change and justice within specific high profile cases, there was little focus on those that fell outside of an established, famous, white, ableist, Hollywood circle.

Women who face sexual abuse, and are not famous or economically privileged, face disproportionate rates of violence. The AAPF has cited that:

“Black women and girls as young as 7 and as old as 93 have been killed by the police, though we rarely hear their names. Knowing their names is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for lifting up their stories which in turn provides a much clearer view of the wide-ranging circumstances that make Black women’s bodies disproportionately subject to police violence...”

Say Her Name is a predominantly digital movement that utilizes social media to raise awareness for black female victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence in the United States. To bring attention to the experiences and lives of these Black women, the #SayHerName hashtag was first utilized on Twitter by AAPF.

Between the years 2016 and 2017, the hashtag #sayhername was used over four hundred thousand times on Twitter. The African American Policy Forum found that one-third of Tweets using the hashtag was in conjunction with the name and story of a Black woman who was a victim of police violence or anti-Black violence. One of the most shared cases relating to the hashtag #sayhername, was the murder of Breonna Taylor.

At the end of the day, on March 13th, 2020, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician, and her boyfriend Kenneth Walker, got into their bed. At midnight, Breonna and Kenneth were attacked by three white, plain clothed, police officers that had forcibly entered her home. Firing off thirty-two shots, Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove killed Breonna and injured her partner. Almost two years later, no charges have been laid over Breonna Taylor’s murder.

After her death, commentators quickly turned to Twitter and Instagram to voice their rage over the injustice and speak out against police brutality, especially as it pertains to racialized women. Celebrities, scholars, activists, politicians, and other social media users tweeted, shared, live-streamed, commented on, and created content surrounding the hashtags: #breonnataylor and #SayHerName.

As Breonna’s story spread, the phrase “Arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor” came into heavy pop-culture usage, suggesting to many that it transcended its original intention of a rallying cry, into something that was more of an internet trend.

Lili Reinhart, an American actress known for her role in the television show Riverdale, posted a picture of herself on Instagram, posed on the beach. She accompanied the photo with the caption “Now that I have gotten your attention, Breonna Taylor’s murderers have not been arrested. Demand justice.” This post, now deleted from Reinhart’s social media, was met with criticism. On Twitter, Reinhart later tweeted an apology:

However, this post did not merely come off as insensitive. To many, such as pop culture scholar Bolu Babalola, this was merely an example of the risk of triviality that comes with participating in social media activist “trends.” Babolola tweets: “You're scrolling and you're sharing, and that's great, but it can trick you into thinking you know what you do not, not really, not fully.”

Hashtags are powerful in and of themselves. Twitter specifically, allows users on its platform to create in the form of 280 character messages, otherwise known as tweets. In these tweets, people can share images, words, and videos as well as reshare and mention the tweets of others. While typing on a laptop keyboard, or on a phone may seem like a minuscule action, tweeting about and participating in social media activism, results in a micro-mobilization that illuminates the issue at hand. With #SayHerName, as people use the hashtag, stories are spread between Twitter accounts, incidents of violence against Black women are brought to attention—and the more people who tweet using it, the more people understand how important that call to action is. Hopefully.

Additionally, hashtags can, as Yarimar Bonilla writes, “lasso accompanying texts and their indexical meanings.” In the example of #BreonnaTaylor, #SayHerName was used in relation—tweets at certain times containing both hashtags, and sometimes the addition of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Links across hashtags help to frame specific movements in a sort of digital reference system—much like a physical library.

Through social media…

“more and more people in the United States and around the world are finally waking up to the fact that [racism] has been the status quo in our communities and we need to stop it.” Opal Tometi, for Time Magazine’s #Reckoning

On May 25th, 2020, Darnella Frazer, a Minneapolis high school junior walked to Cup Foods with her cousin, looking to buy some snacks. As they walked up to the store, Darnella witnessed two police officers throwing a Black onto to the street. Darnella sent her cousin into the store and took out her phone, recording the words of George Floyd as he was pushed to the pavement: “I can’t breathe.”

The following morning at 1:46 AM, Darnella posted her video to Facebook. In the weeks that followed, her video and the murder of George Floyd sparked protests across hundreds of cities in the United States and across the world. Darnella’s video, as well as many other similar videos that have appeared this year, highlights racial discrimination, police brutality and violence FROM the unfiltered, unedited perspective of the abused—rather than the white, mainstream, filtered position.

On the power of social media activism, author and activist Kimberly Jones asked:

“Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. had a Facebook...and the way in which information could have been sent out… the opportunity to view and see things how they authentically were.”

Darnella Frazer’s video is a perfect example of how through social media, people can see things as they truly are. But the recording of that video and it’s posting, were only the initial steps. As I have begun this conversation—activism is not divided between digital and physical protest, but inclusive of both. As significant as social media activism is, alone, it is important to note, as Rodney Diverlus does in Black Lives Matter Toronto: Urgency as Choreographic Necessity: “physical interventions are vital to Black-led resistance.”

If we are to remotely, quickly, prompt comparison to these two facets of contemporary activism, it is worth pointing out that social media activism is often more accessible and safer for certain groups of people. As Yarimar Bonilla explains, it is: “not coincidental that the groups most likely to experience police brutality, to have their protests disparaged as acts of ‘rioting’ or ‘looting’ and to be misrepresented in the media are precisely those turning to digital activism.”

Within face-to-face interactions, such as the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, there exists an increased risk of harm. In Philadelphia, in 2020, local police officers sprayed protestors with tear gas, trapping them on an interstate with nowhere to go and no way to breathe. In Iowa, on May 31st of 2020, protestors Italia Kelly and Marquis Tousant were shot and killed while leaving a Black Lives Matter demonstration after the murder of George Floyd.

The success of movements such as Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name, comes from their ability to exist in the physical AND in the digital together—transcending the streets of New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, Chicago, and many others, to touch people all over the world.

On June 10th, 2020, the Pew Research Centre cited that the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter had been used over forty million times on Twitter, averaging use around three million times per day. The multi-modal activist approach of Black Lives Matter, as both physical activist and digital intervention, allows us to question what it means to move together and “show up.”

Within this multi-modal structure of contemporary activism, that has is growing in its omnipresent and omniscient reach over society—it becomes more essential than ever to question why we show up for activism. Do we show up because we fundamentally believe in a cause? Do we show up because we are impacted, or know someone personally who is? Or, do we show up because we see that everybody else is?

In Unsettling Allyship, Jenalee Kluttz writes: “Who is an ally and who gets to decide? If you are an ally, are you always an ally? For how long? In what contexts?” In this text, Kluttz and other authors explain that allyship is situational and specific. As well, as @nicepieda tweeted, it is also falsely performative. One of the most popularized examples of this concept of performative activism comes from June 2020, otherwise known as “blackout Tuesday.” The flooding of black squares on Instagram, predominantly from white, social media users, prompted questions about the intentions behind the solidarity that was expressed for Black Lives Matter.

In #BlackoutTuesday: Performative Activism’s Issues, Qy’Darrius McEachern argues that performative allies are:

"People who had no intent on creating justice or true change, but they only wanted to appease their conscience. To say that I did something. That I did my part. But what did you do? How many petitions did you sign? How much capital did you donate to the cause... How did you demand justice?" (McEachern, 2:39).

Performative allyship necessitates illusionary actions of care that benefits only the dominant and the privileged, rather than the marginalized, all in the “pursuit to be perceived as a good person” (McEachern, 3:37).

A multi-modal activist practice presents its own benefits as a tool for social change, as it presents its own shortcomings. While it is perhaps obvious that activism will continue to be characterized by simultaneous digital and physical demonstrations, the ways in which we (social media users, people) engage with such demonstrations are shifting. Movements such as Say Her Name and Black Lives Matter are becoming more popularized in their use of both social media and traditional forms of activism.

While this structure of activism is seemingly all-encompassing, it also leaves space for disturbances that result in decreased or desensitized meanings and performative allyship.

4 views0 comments


bottom of page