From Hashtags to Histories: How social media is shaping Black activism

Social media is the activist tool of choice in 2024, serving as a powerful platform for amplifying social justice movements, engaging communities, and fostering dialogue on issues of equality and peace. In the rich past of Black history, activism has always been a vital thread, weaving through decades of struggle, resilience, and progress. From the civil rights era to the present day, Black activists have utilized various mediums to advocate for change, and in the digital age, social media has emerged as a primary catalyst for social transformation.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, approximately one-third of social media users (34%) have participated in a group that shares an interest in an issue or cause. A smaller percentage (26%) reported encouraging others to act on social media within the past year. Furthermore, a smaller proportion of users have engaged in activities such as searching for information on protests or rallies in their area (14%), changing their profile picture to support a cause (14%), or using hashtags related to political or social issues (12%) over the past year.

Just like any other aspect of society, activism has undergone significant evolution, transitioning from in-person protests to virtual forms of activism. This includes actions like updating profile pictures with filters that reflect political stances and reposting thought-provoking dialogues. Reflecting on the historical evolution of activism offers a portrait of resilience and highlights the importance of spreading awareness and being a part of the movement by any means necessary.

In the 1950s, a surge of resistance against segregation and discrimination took hold. This era saw the emergence of boycotts and sit-ins as powerful tools in the fight for racial equality. One notable instance was the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956, ignited by Rosa Parks’ brave act of defiance. Sit-ins and strategic nonviolent protests became prominent tactics of the civil rights movement during the late 50s. Protestors would gather in public spaces, steadfast in their refusal to move until their demands were met, despite facing hostility and violence from opponents.

In the 1960s, a wave of radicalism and revolution swept through America, epitomized by the Black Panther Party and iconic leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The Black Panthers boldly advocated for armed self-defense and community empowerment, disrupting the status quo and demanding justice for marginalized communities. Simultaneously, figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. galvanized millions with their impassioned pleas for racial equality and social justice, leading impactful marches and achieving significant progress in the movement.

In the 1970s, the struggle for Black liberation took on new dimensions as urban uprisings and rebellions erupted in cities across America. Fueled by frustration and discontent, these rebellion protests served as a powerful expression of resistance against systemic injustice and police brutality. The 1980s brought new challenges for the Black community as the crack epidemic ravaged neighborhoods and communities of color. Against this backdrop of devastation, Black activists mobilized to address the root causes of poverty, addiction, and violence while also navigating and breaking barriers within the complex terrain of politics and policymaking.

As the 1990s dawned, music and cinema emerged as potent forms of activism, with artists and filmmakers using their platforms to address social issues and amplify marginalized voices. From hip-hop music with songs like “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy to films like “Boyz n the Hood” and “Do the Right Thing,” Black culture became a powerful vehicle for social commentary and political critique.

At the turn of the millennium, the emergence of digital technology and the rise of social media reshaped the realm of activism. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram emerged as potent tools for organizing, mobilizing, and shedding light on urgent social concerns. With the power of viral hashtags, online petitions, and previously unavailable avenues for dialogue, social media empowered black activists to engage with millions, igniting vital discussions about race, justice, and equality while keeping the public informed about global events. These “Blactivists” harness the power of social media to inform, engage, and organize communities around pressing social issues.

“It’s my job as a Black journalist to cut through a lot of that noise and just show you what’s going on. Obviously, I can’t get to everything, but I try to,” said Lewis, who’s career took off from sharing stories on twitter. “The whole point of it is not to be perfect. The point is just to continue to build that credibility and that’s just something that comes over time. I’m really happy that I’ve been able to position myself in that way.”

In the digital age of activism, Philip Lewis and Gerren Keith Gaynor stand out as notable figures whose impactful journalism and social media presence have rallied support for various social justice causes. As the deputy editor for Huffington Post, Lewis focuses on sharing information about current events and social developments that impact the broader community. Meanwhile, Gaynor, serving as the White House correspondent and Grio editor of politics, delves into political happenings, ensuring the public remains informed.

Through their reporting and online advocacy, both have drawn attention to critical issues such as police brutality, racial inequality, and voter suppression, amplifying the voices of marginalized communities and holding those in power accountable. Utilizing not only their publication platforms but also their social media presence, both journalists create digital safe spaces where readers feel comfortable accessing information and sharing their thoughts and opinions.

While Twitter and Facebook remain influential platforms for the new wave of activism, exemplified by movements like Black Lives Matter and the collective outcry following George Floyd’s murder, other platforms such as Instagram and TikTok are demonstrating the significant reach of activism through video commentary and virtual conversations. Figures like Lynae Vanee and Sally McMullin illustrate that being a “Social” influencer can indeed drive meaningful change.

Sally McMullin, curator of “Black History You Should Know,” is a perfect example of how social media can be used to reclaim and celebrate black history. Through her Instagram account, McMullin highlights lesser-known stories and individuals from black history, enriching the narrative and fostering a deeper understanding of the struggles and triumphs of the past.

Lynae Vanee adopts a similar approach, addressing the Black community through her camera to shed light on current events affecting them, as well as the persistent disconnects still ingrained in the fabric of society. Her “Parking Lot Pimpin’” series, known for its unfiltered commentary and credible facts, has garnered over 7,000 followers and millions of views. Vanee’s unapologetically black perspective, coupled with her focus on progress and upliftment within the black community, has earned her admiration and support.

“I want to repair Black communities,” said Vanee. “White supremacy has been very successful at dividing us and shaping attitudes. For those of us who look different, who identify different, who are differently abled–I want to repair that. So that means I have to engage political conversation and bring it back to the homies.”

While social media has undoubtedly revolutionized the way activists communicate and organize, it is not without its challenges. The democratization of information has led to a proliferation of misinformation and disinformation, which can undermine the credibility of legitimate movements and obscure the truth. Additionally, the anonymity afforded by social media can embolden trolls and harassers, creating a hostile environment for activists, particularly women and marginalized communities.

Despite these challenges, social media remains a powerful tool for driving social change and advancing the cause of justice. From viral hashtags to online petitions, digital activism has the potential to mobilize mass movements and effect tangible change in society. By harnessing the power of social media, black activists continue to push boundaries, challenge norms, and pave the way for a more equitable and just future.

Famous social activists like Shaun King and Amanda Seals have generated a blend of praise and criticism regarding the impact of their platforms on the Black community and the ongoing quest for equality. Whether they are viewed as beneficial or detrimental depends on individual perspectives. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that they have garnered significant attention through their discussions, social media presence, and interviews. Regardless of where one stands on these activists, who occupy a space between commendable and condemnable actions, their influence cannot be dismissed.

Beyond the personal realm, the survey also delves into the broader societal impact of social media on political discourse. While there is acknowledgment of the platforms’ potential to foster civic engagement, there is also criticism. The majority of Americans, irrespective of race or ethnicity, express concerns about social media’s tendency to distract people from important issues or create a false sense of making a difference.

Over the past 15 years, social media has significantly influenced politics and public perceptions of politicians, a trend that continues with the upcoming election. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, social media plays a role in many people’s decision-making processes. However, the study also highlights existing disparities in this regard.

Black, Hispanic, and Asian users are more likely than their White counterparts to view social media as crucial for connecting with others who share their views or getting involved in issues they care about. This discrepancy underscores the differing roles social media plays in shaping political engagement among various demographic groups. Age and political affiliation also influence individuals’ perceptions of social media’s significance in political discourse. Younger users and those affiliated with certain political parties attribute varying levels of importance to social media in shaping their political views and actions.

While the methods and mediums of activism may evolve, the spirit of resistance remains steadfast, driving us ever closer to a world where equality, peace, and justice prevail. As we look to the future, let us draw inspiration from the past and the present, knowing that our collective efforts have the power to shape history. Together, we can build a world where every voice is heard, every life is valued, and every individual can thrive. Next time you consider social media, consider its potential for social change. We all have the capacity to be agents of transformation.

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