As a communications intern, I spend a lot of time on social media. As a communications intern for a nonprofit in North Carolina’s gender equity space, I spend a lot of time consuming and creating content related to social justice. And, on my own accounts, I am sharing and scrolling through similar content, especially once the Black Lives Matter movement necessarily transformed individuals’ behavior on social media after George Floyd’s death.
Thus, I think it’s safe to say I am very familiar with social media, a tool that Forbes credits Generation Z with using to maintain the outcry against racism and policing that dominated much of this month’s news cycle. In an article from June 12th, Forbes explains how young activists are using social media as a “serious tool for change,” mastering the ability to translate online activism to tangible actions like protesting and donating.
I have witnessed and participated in the rapid spread of information and calls to action, both as a private user and as an intern for WomenNC. Social media is an excellent place to connect people with ways to create change. Lists of places to donate to. Numbers to call. Where to protest. But, I think Forbes exaggerates the way social media benefits Black Lives Matter organizers. Or at least, this article overlooks serious problems facing activism in the age of social media.
First, the spread of misinformation with the movement and among allies is dangerously real. I have seen countless people post about examples of cities successfully defunding the police that are actually cases of privatization. #8CantWait policy solutions spread across platforms only for people to turn around a few days later and question the legitimacy of the study. People understandably get frustrated with the conventional media for its portrayal of peaceful protests and find social media refreshingly authentic. But, we still have to vet and scrutinize information shared online.
Second, complex policy and history cannot be reduced to pretty graphics for Instagram stories without glaring omissions of facts. While it’s important to learn about studies, policy recommendations, and history, we can’t treat social media as a substitute for school. People can’t read a post that explains the history of Juneteenth or why defunding the police is beneficial to communities in a couple paragraphs and think they are educated on the subject.
Third, performative activism from Generation Z is just as real as the revolutionary activism Forbes claims that we have transitioned to. Posting on Instagram stories has become a way for non-Black people to signal to the world that they are allies. Social media culture promotes an attitude of “why bother doing it if no one is going to see that I did it and know that I’m on the right side of history.” It’s important to amplify Black voices and messages against racism, but just posting is not enough.
Fourth, just as social media has become a tool for change, it has also become a tool for the newest generation of white supremacists and individuals maintaining the status quo to spread hate. It allows a loud minority of Americans to amplify their voices further and organize against the Black Lives Matter movement. We must acknowledge that social media has a dark side and is a place that people can both decry and support racism.
There’s no doubt that social media benefited the Black Lives Matter movement this past month, from massive fundraising efforts to successfully pressuring changes in policy. It certainly contributed to the success activists had in gaining visibility and spreading their messages. But the determination and perseverance of organizers tired of racism mattered most, and we can’t forget that.