Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police brutality in the US, the world is finally listening to the long-overdue conversation about systemic racism. Watching recent events unfold on our timelines, it’s clear that social media has had a huge part to play in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Platforms like Instagram and Twitter have become a much-needed source of information and stage for people, particularly black people, to share stories and shed light on black issues, from police brutality to the lack of black history education. And unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, they’ve been near-impossible to miss.
Activism on social media has never been more important, especially for the demographic who are most active – 18-29 year olds. It’s opened up conversations about racism that have historically been taboo or “uncomfortable”. While the initial #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was created back in 2013 after the shooting of an African American teenager, Trayvon Martin, in 2012, it has since been used over 21 million times on Instagram alone. Through this hashtag and others relating to the movement, people have been able to ingest information in a quick and informative way – the story of George Floyd broke on Instagram before a single UK news outlet picked it up.
While the Daily Mail was quick to paint recent protests outside Downing Street as “violent criminality” after a police officer was flung off her horse, a quick scroll on social media displays the bigger picture where the same police in question were seen stampeding the peaceful protest. What has made social media a game changer in the current Black Lives Matter movement is the ability to share information like this, and quickly. And with many young people using social media as their main source of news, Twitter threads and Instagram stories have played a vital role in sharing stories, from videos of police brutality in the US to protests around the UK. The benefits of sharing information like this go far beyond the standard trajectory that most media outlets follow. Instead, our timelines have provided specific information on Black Lives Matter charities to donate to, petitions to sign, black authors to read and even black brands to support.
But at the other end of the spectrum, performance allyship has been widely criticised by those who feel it’s not good enough to post a black tile on Instagram with the #BlackOutTuesday hashtag unless those who do so are supporting the movement where it really matters – petitions, financial donations, education etc. As a friend powerfully said to me this week – “this is not a trend or a hashtag, this is real people’s lives every day”. Influencers and those with a large following now have a moral obligation to do more and, importantly, be seen to be doing more rather than jumping on “an Instagram hype”.
What’s clear is that, performatively or not, social media has given many a platform to engage in conversations about race like never before – and this time, it feels different. The support for the movement and the global black community shows that there’s a long way to go in terms of equality, but the use of social media has given many people hope, the means to share vital information and importantly, opened up a conversation long overdue. Using social media alone won’t tackle the injustices of racism, but it’s proving to be a useful tool to try and get there.