You are on page 1of 8

Mollenkamp 1

Allison Mollenkamp
Dr. Amber Buck
19 November 2015
In the year 1775, the British colonies in America were in a state of turmoil. National
identity and self-determination were bringing the worlds largest empire and a largely
unorganized group of colonists to the brink of crisis. The battle of Lexington and Concord
brought the conflict onto the global stage with what Ralph Waldo Emerson would later refer to as
the shot heard round the world. However, it wasnt heard particularly quickly. News of the
battle had to be carried by ship across the Atlantic Ocean to England and Europe, where it then
could be printed on a printing press that had to be operated by hand and then the papers could be
delivered on horseback.
The times have changed. We live in a global information age where any event, big or
small, can be a part of international news in seconds. The more important change, however,
comes in the form of the global discussion made possible through digital information, in
particular social media. The quick spread of news and the forum for discussion makes social
media a seemingly ideal outlet for protest and activism in this new age. However, not every
movement that takes to Twitter or other social media succeeds. Hashtag activism is most
affective in creating real life protest and political effect when the movement has a sense of
immediacy through geographic proximity and repeated incidents fueling grievance.

Mollenkamp 2

The most effective social media movements have been made successful by close
proximity and long strings of incidents showing the grievances of the activists, as can be seen in
the beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt. This was one of the earliest protest movements to
publicly be facilitated by social media. While the social media sites popular today, such as
Facebook and Twitter, were still fairly new both in Egypt and overall, politically they were a
continuation of the role played by political blogs (Ghannam). Under the Egyptian leader at the
time, Mubarak, all traditional media was controlled by the corrupt government, leaving very little
avenue for self-expression or dissent (Ghannam). Blogs and then social media filled this gap in
public life, though their use was very dangerous and often led to very public arrest for the
dissenters (Ghannam). These arrests, in turn, helped to fuel the very dissent the bloggers hoped
to spread. The people the social media campaigns in Egypt led to action were people who lived
with the realities of an oppressive government every single day, not far away Americans trying to
be guardian angels. Egyptians used social media to help themselves. The arrests of bloggers, who
even without being arrested were heroes for providing reliable news and free expression, served
as repeated reminders of the injustice of an environment where speech is not free but actively
discouraged. When social media came into the picture, it provided a forum where these
grievances could be shared in a network on a large scale, and that allowed the jump from the
internet to the streets of Egypt. Conversation allowed for action, and the movement achieved its
goal of the removal of Mubarak.
In more current times, the most successful social media movement by far is
#BlackLivesMatter. This, too, is fueled primarily by repeated reason for grievances. Every month
it seems, another young black person is killed by the police. In addition to this, the American
courts rule again and again in favor of the officers who killed these usually unarmed young

Mollenkamp 3

people. Every month we are reminded again that the lives of black Americans are not given the
value that they deserve. This is horrifying enough in itself, but the movement is literally brought
even closer to home by the wide geographic range of these deaths. The movement was started
after George Zimmerman was not convicted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida
(Stephen). In 2014 it was brought forward with a fury with the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric
Garner in Missouri and New York. Months later Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Sandra Bland in
Texas reminded the nation that the protest in Ferguson did not exist in isolation but were a
reaction to a national crisis. No American could say the problem was too far from them.
The protest in Ferguson and across the nation in reaction to each of these incidents drew
largescale attention from traditional media. The protests had begun on the ground but were
revitalized and continued by those who became a part of the movement online. This was
especially important in coordinating protests, as #BlackLivesMatter lacked the central structure
of previous movements (Stephen). The national media attention was brought on largely by the
mages of the protests. In Ferguson, for instance, pictures of the National Guard facing unarmed
protestors and local businesses in flames were spread far from St. Louis. These images increased
public outrage and opened a second social media conversation about racial bias in reporting and
how largely black protests are framed differently than white ones.
In addition to proximity, repetition, and significant mainstream media coverage, the
Black Lives Matter movement has been made effective by its opposition. #AllLivesMatter has
continued the discussion of police brutality and racism in America by demonstrating the clear
misunderstanding of the issues by many people who have not experienced them. Additionally, by
polarizing the issue into two clear sides, #AllLivesMatter made it very easy for
#BlackLivesMatter to become a part of mainstream politics. This is especially important with the

Mollenkamp 4

2016 presidential election looming over the political climate. Democratic candidates were often
stumbled by the appeal of the surface idea of #AllLivesMatter while missing the problems,
which were quickly brought to their attention by protests at their campaign events. For
Republicans there is less dissent to the idea of the #AllLivesMatter cause, which is essentially to
ignore the issues presented around racism in all aspects of American life, especially in the way
we police our communities.
Black Lives Matter has been made sustainable because it is part of a web diverse issues in
society. While the initial movement addressed the death of Florida teen, Trayvon Martin, the
anger over that event extended to many areas of life for people of color in America. According to
the official website of the movement, It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates
our society and also, unfortunately, our movements (Garza). One hashtag came to represent a
host of issues. Michael Browns death brought to the mainstream media eye the broken system of
policing in America and particularly the interaction of police with people of color. With the
recent protests at Mizzou, the hashtag, along with Mizzous specific movement under
#concernedstudent1950 has come to represent the presence of racism on college campuses across
the nation. #concernedstudent1950 also continued the conversation about racism and protest in
the media. The protesters at the University of Missouri actively sought to prevent reporters from
writing about their protests. Because the protests occurred in a public space, the journalists had
first amendment rights to report on them, but the protesters were reacting to how previous
protests had been covered. After several articles bashing the protesters for their actions, one
Washington Post reporter wrote that The black community distrusts the news media because it
has failed to cover black pain fairly (Starr). The protesters were changing the way they acted
because of the way the media treated the people who came before them. In this way media, and

Mollenkamp 5

perhaps on a larger scale the discussion of the media online, has helped to shape not only what
people protest, but how they are protesting.
Social media can easily facilitate spreading awareness of a cause on a global scale, but
awareness is not the same as action. For instance, the conversation around the Scottish
independence referendum, or #indyref, was not isolated to Scotland. The map below shows the
origin of tweets about the referendum on the day of the vote, August 18th, 2014 (Geary). America

not only talked about the vote. They practically screamed about it. The conversation on twitter
was more prominent in the U.S. than in many parts of Europe much closer to Scotland.
Traditional news media in America covered not only the events of the campaign in Scotland, but
the potential ramifications for the global economy, the U.S., and the E.U. The American opinion
of these impacts was driven partly by the opinions of favorite British celebrities (Jamieson).
Social media made this type of conversation viable for the traditional media. All sides needed
coverage because all sides were being discussed online. In this way, social media raised
awareness of a global event that otherwise could have stayed localized.
The #BringBackOurGirls movement raised awareness through social media in an attempt
to rectify a human rights violation. The reaction to the kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria

Mollenkamp 6

was very complex. It came from both the local Nigerian community and the international public,
but also from both concerned citizens and the U.S. government (Taylor). Initially this event did
not gain much attention, as sadly it is fairly commonplace for the area (Taylor). However, a few
weeks after the kidnapping the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls went viral both within Nigeria and
across the world. Suddenly, the U.S. especially cared immensely about the fate of the girls
(Taylor). This reaction was specific and possessive because despite the distance Americans
referred to the young Nigerians as Our Girls. However, it was also more general, as the anger at
Boko Haram was combined with the general U.S. hatred of terrorist groups. This anger was
fueled by the imagined horror of how it would feel if a similar crisis occurred in America.
The immense attention on social media was helpful in some ways. It put a large amount
of pressure on the questionable Nigerian government and led the U.S. to offer official help in
searching for the kidnapped girls (Taylor). However, as with any story in the twenty-four hour
news cycle, attention faded (Shah). Both mainstream media and hashtag activists left the story
behind. 300 Nigerian girls fell by the wayside just as the flash-fire anger with Joseph Kony did
two years earlier in 2012. #BringBackOurGirls was almost randomly selected as the next in a
long line of attention grabbers on social media, raising the question of why it gained such
attention in a world full of crises and why it was left behind.
Social media activism is made effective primarily by relatability. This is assisted by
repetition and proximity, but it comes from a variety of factors that are hard to control.
#BringBackOurGirls ran up against the fact that Americans simply cannot imagine a world in
which their children would be kidnapped en masse from school. Black Lives Matter could have
had a similar problem in that for many white Americans its difficult to think of the police as
anything other than protectors and heroes. However, the quick succession of such well-

Mollenkamp 7

documented violent incidents in 2014 helped Black Lives Matter to overcome this disbelief.
Additionally, once it became clear that these were real issues, the people of color in communities
served as a constant reminder of a movement that could have faded otherwise. Friends and
colleagues face the realities of a world where it black lives are often treated as if they do not
matter every single day. A movement is made by the bleeding hearts of the community. For a
movement to be effective it has to show the world who around us is being hurt by the current
system. This was simply not done by Scotlands #indyref or by #BringBackOurGirls. Despite the
new global way of life, these countries do not yet represent neighbors and friends to most people.
Hashtag activism can raise awareness and stop there, or through proximity and repeated
incidents of injustice, it can fuel real social and political change. This is not all that different
from what could fuel social movements in the pre-digital age. However, the work done by
protestors can be very different. Social media activism can be truly grassroots. Large central
structures and leadership are not only rare, but at times the overhead associated with these
organizations can become a hindrance in the fickle world of the internet. The reality is that even
movements with clear purpose close to home may not gain the attention of the social media
machine. The world is moving faster than it ever has before and it is the responsibility of the user
and the consumer of digital and traditional media to be conscious of the support they provide to
social causes. It has become easier to be aware of the issues facing the world, but its imperative
that /attention be sustained and thoughtful. Hashtag activism cannot become slacktivism.

Mollenkamp 8

Works Cited
Garza, Alicia. "Herstory." Black Lives Matter. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Geary, Joanna. Follow the #Indyref on Twitter. Twitter Blog. Twitter, 17 September 2014.
Web. 10 November 2015.
Ghannam, Jeffrey. Social Media in the Arab World: Leading Up to the Uprisings in 2011.
Washington, DC:Center for International Media Assistance, 2011. Web.
Jamieson, Alastair. Ten Things to Know About Scotlands Independence Referendum. NBC
News. NBC, 15 September 2014. Web. 10 November 2015.
Shah, Manahil. Not Another Hashtag: Social Medias Failure to Fight #BokoHaram. Berkely
Political Review 13 January 2015: n.p. Web.
Starr, Terrell Jermaine. "There's a Good Reason Protesters at the University of Missouri Didn't
Want the Media Around." Washington Post 11 Nov. 2015: n. pag. Washington Post.
Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Stephen, Bijan. Social Media Helps Black Lives Matter Fight the Power. Wired October 2015:
n.p. Web.
Taylor, Adam. Is #bringbackourgirls Helping? The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.) 6
May 2014. Web. 12 November 2015.