The Social Movement Group, Black Lives Matter (BLM), emerged from a hashtag on Twitter in 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, United States. The movement rekindled into what it is today after the killing of African-American man Michael Brown in 2014 by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The movements original focus was on the issue of police brutality against African Americans in the United States, but has quickly evolved into a call for justice surrounding the broader range of inequalities experienced by people of colour. Many social movement groups fall prey to the news media's often biased and misleading coverage of activists, events, and movement goals, but Black Lives Matter uses social media, in particular twitter, to challenge and contest their misrepresentation by the news media, as well as create their own collective narrative of the events unfolding. By popularizing radical discourse through social media, BLM brought considerable attention to the longstanding racial injustices endured by African Americans in the United states, otherwise misrepresented or downplayed in the news media.
News Media, a form of mass media that includes newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and internet, often present negative portrayals of protesting groups, an explanation for which can be referred to as the 'protest paradigm' (Leopold and Bell, 2017). News frames, reliance on official sources and official definitions, invocation of public opinion, delegitimization, and demonization, are the five aspects of this paradigm that mass media often invoke to portray a protest or movement in a negative light. By completing an analysis of The New York Post, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Chicago Tribune and The St Louis Post-Dispatch, 6 of which are the top newspapers in the U.S., Leopold and Bell found that these newspapers did in fact adhere to the protest paradigm in all five aspects in their coverage of BLM, of which I will focus on three that are most pertinent to the challenges on social media. News frames serve to highlight specific aspects of an issue and increase their salience, but many times a frame will define the protest in a way that has 'nothing to do with the motivation for the protest' (Leopold and Bell, 2017, p. 3). The majority of the articles analyzed deployed a riot frame, which overemphasize any danger, destruction, or lawlessness in the movement. One article from the LA Times was titled, ' TURMOIL IN FERGUSON; Ferguson's anger builds and spreads; Many residents appear to be shocked by the destruction. Protests in other cities more peaceful' (Leopold and Bell, 2017, p. 7). The article goes on to feature a quote by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, who described the protestors as dangerous and destructive thieves. Another article, from CNN, headlined their article 'Baltimore riots: Looting, fires engulf city after Freddie Gray's funeral' (Banks, 2018, p. 9). These articles emphasize the destructive actions of particular protestors, but fail to acknowledge the many peaceful vigils and legal expressions of activism exhibited by most of the protestors in the movement. News media will often select frames that generate novelty and entertainment, as 'burning buildings and burning tires', makes better television than 'peaceful vigils and orderly marches', which is evident in their coverage of the BLM movement (Gamson and Wolfield, 1993, p. 12). News media also serves to delegitimize protests and movements, which can be seen in choosing the word 'alleged' to refer to the victims of police brutality. One newspaper article, focusing on the theatrics of the movement, stated that during a 'die in' (a demonstration in which people lie down as if dead), the group carried 'a dozen black cardboard coffins, bearing the names of alleged victims of police violence' (Leopold and Bell, 2017, p. 8). By using the word 'alleged', the article attempts to delegitimize the police brutality inflicted on people of colour, and suggests that the victims might be responsible for their own death, which reframes the discussion completely. In another instance, following the fatal shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice who was holding a toy gun, the news media focused on the victim rather than the state or police officer. They ran profiling of Rice's parents and determined that they had a 'violent past', which they then used to justify why Rice had been holding a toy gun, and the subsequent actions taken by the police officer. In this case, there was no discussion of a national 'gun culture', as there often is in 'incidents involving youth and guns', even though in this case the 'gun' was a toy (Bonilla and Rosa, 2015, p. 9). This form of victim blaming serves to delegitimize the injustices faced by African Americans by focusing attention on characteristics of the victim, while failing to acknowledge that police officers are also responsible for their actions. Demonization, which ties into the news media's use of riot frames, is a result of reporting that fails to take into account the issues behinds the protests and instead highlights the destructive or deviant behaviour of certain protestors. Without sufficient coverage of the reasons behind these acts, audiences often report negative feelings towards the protestors, as well as a 'lack of awareness about and sympathy for the social issue that prompts the protest' (Leopold and Bell, 2017, p. 4). Many news articles extensively focused on protestors blocking roads, the number of protestors arrested for minor offences, and even pointed protestors attempts to disrupt holiday events, like black Friday, subsequently demonizing them and portraying them as a public nuisance, with minimal reference to the reasons and goals behind the activism. As protest is legal, the BLM movement is often not breaking any laws, but the 'disruption to standards of civility and politeness are what the news media paints as deviant' (Banks, 2018, p. 9). News media reliance on official sources, such as politicians as a source of information and dissemination, allows those in power to define protest in and on their terms, and consequentially characterize protestors by their deviance from societal norms. This is exhibited by Sharpton, the new face of the civil rights establishment, who’s speech “lent legitimacy to Ferguson officials accounts”, blaming violence on protestors even as police readily violated their right to assemble (Taylor, 2018, p. 6). In another speech, Sharpton spoke of “big change”, but did not mention racism, mass incarceration, or any of the broader issues that younger activists were pushing for (Taylor, 2018, p. 16). By focusing on an elected official like Sharpton, who does not truly embody the goals of the movement, the news media fails to acknowledge the reasons behind the movement, and as a result delegitimizes the actions and voices of protestors. Social movements often rely on mass media to garner public sympathy for their cause, but by using riot frames, delegitimizing victim’s injustices, and demonizing the movement on the basis of select individuals, the news media consequentially portrayed the BLM movement in a negative light.
The social media platform Twitter, along with the use of hashtags, was a critical tool used by activists to raise awareness to the BLM movement as well as challenge the dominant ideologies held by the news media. Hashtags allow the ordering and quick retrieval of information about a specific topic, as well as possess the ability to link a broad range of tweets together. Hashtags #Ferguson, and #BlackLivesMatter provided easy access to updated news on the unfolding events, and they allowed twitter users who are territorially displaced to feel like they are 'united across both space and time' (Bonilla and Rosa, 2015, p. 4). Twitter, in particular, provides a unique platform for collectively identifying and contesting racial injustices from the in-group themselves. After Michael Brown was allegedly shot while holding his hands up, activists took to Twitter with the hashtag #HandsUpDontShoot to challenge victim blaming, which is based in the belief that “one can control the perception of one’s body and the violence inflicted on it” (Bonilla and Rosa, 2015, p. 5). As discussed above, the news media attempts to delegitimize the victims of police brutality not only by referring to victims as “alleged”, but also through censorship and lack of coverage of injustices faced by racialized populations. Immediately following Michael Brown’s death, a twitter user posted a video of Brown and the police officer engaging in the altercation, stating that she thinks she “just saw someone die”, followed by a photograph taken from behind the beams of a small wooden balcony overlooking Canfield Drive, where Michael Browns body lay (Bonilla and Rosa, 2015, p. 1). A mass of outraged hash tagged tweets protesting his death followed this raw photo, which was a way of calling attention to an “underreported incident of police brutality”, so instantaneous and widespread that the news media didn’t have time to create their own narrative (Bonilla and Rosa, 2015, p. 3). In another instance, Staten Island grand jury’s announcement to not indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer that choked Eric Garner to death, sparked a widespread re circulation of a video of Garner pleading for his life, repeating “I can’t breathe” (Taylor, 2018, p. 14). In this way, social media has provided marginalized and racialized populations with invaluable tools to for documenting incidents of state sanctioned violence while simultaneously challenging the news media’s various forms of racial profiling and misrepresentation of racialized bodies. Even further, activists are able to circumvent news media’s reliance on official sources to articulate a movement’s claims for them, as social media is a platform accessible to everyone. In addition, the discrepancies between news media’s views of events and the public’s forces a state accustomed to having relative monopoly over public speech to take accountability for these anomalies. Pictures were also involved in the discourse on Twitter, as many users posted selfies of them with their hands up in the wake of Michael Browns death. These pictures serve as acts of solidarity, that aim to humanize the victims of police brutality, by “suggesting that a similar fate could befall other similarly construed bodies (Bonilla and Rosa, 2015, p. 5). Activists also point to the fact that anyone can be perceived as innocent and respectable, or violent and criminal, depending on the staging of the photo. News Media often places criminalizing photos of black youth at the top of their articles, and photos of peaceful vigils at the end, if at all. Many Twitter users utilized the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, attaching two pictures, one in which the individual is wearing darker, inconspicuous clothing, and the other dressed in a suit holding a saxophone, in order to address this issue. The hashtag was meant to emphasize the tendency of the news media demonize, stereotype, and tokenize racialized populations, as well as contest meanings ascribed to their bodies through these creative reinterpretations on social media. Compared to mass media, which broadcasts to a passive audience, social media allows people to actively participate in shaping the discourse. Individuals began to view the hashtags as a true representation of their identities and existence, inspiring them to share their own personal stories, thus giving hashtags a communal and collective character. This creation of a collective identity through social media, in particular Twitter, was a critical component in contesting the news media’s narrative, as it allowed a decentralized movement with territorially displaced activists to develop an understanding of problems and solutions that didn’t “exclusively rely on leaders within the movement or other highly visible individuals” (Incea, Rojasa, Davis, 2017, p. 6).
The real success of the BLM movement lied in their usage of social media to present and amplify non dominant narratives, highlighting the important function of digital platforms in contributing to shifts in public discourse. Not only has the movement succeeded in “shifting police brutality from the margins of American politics” to a much more notable position, they engaged in a form of activism that allows traditionally silenced groups to be heard (Freelon, Mcllwain, Clark, 2016, p. 6). The movement has also changed the way we think about the public sphere. Now with social media as a platform for activism, it provides the young people dominating the discourse on these platforms an opportunity to influence that they may not have had in the past. Social media also circumvents traditional forms of publicity by placing power in the hands of individuals, enabling them to create a shared narrative that can be quickly and easily disseminated, and provides a “contrast to existing, mainstream discourse” (Mundt, Ross, Burnett, 2018, p. 10). Across a wide range of BLM organizations, they stated that the most important function of social media for them was that it gave them the ability to control their own narratives, as they could tell their story as “real, raw, and as relevant”, as it was, and “without the worry of a filter being put on” (Mundt, Ross, Burnett, 2018, p. 9). Social Media allowed the movement to create visibility and awareness for the issues they most wanted to address, ones that otherwise might be lost or misconstrued in the news media’s translation.
Although social media is a relatively new platform that can be beneficial for movements because of its wide reach, easily accessible and public nature, and its ability to create a collective identity that deviates from the norm, it has some drawbacks as well. One most possibly destructive to the ability of BLM to frame and articulate their issues and goals accurately is the fact that social media is a public forum and allows counter movement actors to engage in the discourse as well. The accessibility of social media platforms limits the capacity for activists to fully control who is, and who isn’t part of the movement, as well as how its “primary framing symbol – the hashtag #blacklivesmatter – is utilized” (Mundt, Ross, Burnett, 2018, p. 10). This can be seen when the counter narratives #alllivesmatter, and #bluelivesmatter appeared on twitter as part of the discourse surrounding police brutality. By adopting these alternative hashtags in reference to the unfolding events, and by pairing these counter narratives with statements that criticized the movement, users were attempting to delegitimize the grievances and injustices faced by supporters of the BLM, some users even engaging in online “trolling”. Social media use can conceivably hinder positive movement impact by “making it easier for groups to adopt or appropriate symbols”, even if they don’t “share the collective identity or primary focus of the movement” (Mundt, Ross, Burnett, 2018, p. 11). In a survey, BLM group administers also spoke to the extensive amount of time they devote to moderating their online social media profiles, mainly to “stay on the defensive front against unsavory narratives or outright criticism” (Mundt, Ross, Burnett, 2018, p. 11). Although social media as an activism platform naturally entails that anyone can participate, with often polarizing effects, BLM activists managed to deal with the counter narratives that opposed and threatened to dismantle the movement. Many activists withheld giving satisfaction to opponents by simply ignoring the debate over the appropriation of their slogan #blacklivesmatter, while others ingeniously adopted the #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter slogans into their tweets in effort to organize in person protests. The adoption of #alllivesmatter for the cause of protesting racist systems and practices cleverly took power away from those who tried to position #alllivesmatter as a counter to #blacklivesmatter. Twitter users managed to shift the discourse from a debate over identity to a call for collective action, as well as gain traffic to the issues they wanted to discuss.
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