The summer of 2014 brought about the rebirth of an ancient discussion – discrimination against black people by white authoritative figures. It was a discussion of institutional racism and violence targeted against people of color. Thanks to social media, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner became well publicized and were spread like wildfire. With the deaths of these two young boys came issues of police brutality and social injustice which continue to flourish throughout various social media platforms to this day.
Eric Garner was killed when a New York City police officer held him in an illegal chokehold while arresting him in June 2014. It was caught on video, and Garner could be heard repeating “I can’t breathe”, a short phrase that soon became a trending hashtag to commemorate Garner and to question the lack of legal action taken against the officer who was investigated for the murder but never charged. Michael Brown’s case, however, was more difficult without video footage as evidence of what actually happened. He was fatally shot in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri after an altercation with the officer over Brown potentially shoplifting from a nearby gas station. Since this incident followed many similar ones, it quickly went viral, capturing national attention and a demand for justice. The murders of these two seemingly innocent boys led to a new movement called “Black Lives Matter”, representing a new wave of online activism through which people share, comment, like, and produce posts contributing to a nation-wide awareness of police brutality against black people. Photo courtesy of blacklivesmatter.com
According to Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa, within a week following Michael Brown’s death, over 3.6 million tweets expressing concern about the subject were posted, and the hashtag #Ferguson had appeared over 8 million times on Twitter. This movement then went offline, and protesting began in Ferguson as well as in other major cities nationwide. There was a sudden resurgence of social justice demonstration that spread throughout the country, with its roots embedded in the movement’s online development. Despite this call to action, there is still a separation between online and offline activism. There persists a sort of stigma in which people who are online activists think that by creating and using a hashtag, their contribution to an issue is complete. This is called “slacktivism” – a term that refers to a person who believes they are making great changes simply by sharing information on a current issue online, clicking the “like” button, retweeting, etc. Shannon Fisher says, “It all starts with one post — one post that usually includes information about a topic, sometimes linking to an article with facts and figures, and a hashtag related to the post.” This is not to discredit the fact that this is an amazing way to spread awareness. Friends will see a post or hashtag, like, favorite, and re-post it, and millions of people will suddenly be exposed to information that they may not have been aware of previously. Thanks to the internet and constantly advancing technology, it is now easier than ever to reach powerful figures in society, such as celebrities and politicians, and get them involved. But the real question is whether or not tangible action is really being taken after this first step of spreading awareness occurs. Is this new aspect of social media – slacktivism – taking over traditional forms of activism and instead allowing us to share a message via social media, and then step away from the issue and forget about it? We are constantly being fed (literally through newsfeeds) trending hashtags representing social justice messages, but because of how common they are it is easy to scroll by and avoid acting upon them.
We have a powerful tool at our fingertips – the internet. Social media makes communication so much easier, and we can turn slacktivism into activism. The key is learning how to transform sharing tweets and liking posts into a call to action, and to engage people in the issues at hand.