It was the fall of 2014, and the nation was caught in a wave of protest.
Just a few months prior, two unarmed black men, 18-year old Michael Brown from Ferguson, Missouri, and 43-year-old Eric Garner from Staten Island, New York had both died at the hands of police. These were two more in a long line of unarmed black men, women, and children killed by police in the last several years, and people had had enough. Marches, protests, sit-ins, die-ins, and demonstrations were happening in cities across the county, and the mainstream media took notice. The words Black Lives Matter, a movement first started by three black female activists after the 2013 shooting of Trayvon Martin, were suddenly on the cover of TIME magazine. The coverage played all over the news, with Ferguson at the center.
Fast forward to today, a year later, and the mainstream media’s coverage of these issues looks distinctly different. As time has passed, the media has focused less and less on these deaths, or on the broader issue of racial profiling and police violence that they represented.
This is where Twitter comes in.
Despite all that has been said about the problems of Twitter activism or (“slacktivism” as it’s sometimes called) in recent years, the fact remains that social media is often the place where maligned social movements thrive. When the mainstream media is no longer interested in an important issue, social media is there to keep the conversation going.
This is obvious when you look at Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter Movement. While the mainstream media has moved on to other issues, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media platforms continue to talk about, publicize, tweet, and hashtag about the very issues the national media has all but moved on from.
When crowds gathered in Washington DC earlier this month for Justice or Else, the 20 year anniversary of the 1995 Million Man March, coverage of the march was extremely limited in the mainstream media. In the places where the march was covered, the presence of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter activists, and the call to end violence against unarmed black people, was strangely absent. But this was not the case on social media. On Tumblr and Twitter, people shared powerful pictures and news about the march that went almost completely unseen in the national news.
The invisibility of Justice or Else reminds us of another reason why Twitter activism can be powerful. Social media isn’t just the place where maligned social issues continue to be talked about after the mainstream media moves on, but in many cases it is also the place where the media conversation actually begins.
One of the most incredible places where conversation about maligned social movements and issues thrive is on Black Twitter. For those not in the know, Black Twitter isn’t a specific web address; it’s the name that has been given to a section of primarily black twitter users who tweet, and often start trending topics about issues related to black culture and social issues. Black Twitter is a huge and influential network, a virtual place for frank conversation built on black cultural tropes. Black Twitter has been responsible for a number of hilarious and widely known hashtags, like #OscarsSoWhite, #LifetimeMoviesBeLike, and #AskRachel.
Beyond that though, Black Twitter has also been responsible for hashtags like #BringBackOurGirls, #BlackLivesMatter, and #SayHerName. In these cases, Black Twitter forced the mainstream media to actually begin paying attention to these issues in the first place: the more than 200 girls who were kidnapped in Borno State, Nigeria in 2014, the continued shooting of unarmed black people, and the many black women who have also been killed due to police violence, respectively. In these cases, Twitter didn’t just continue the media conversation; Twitter was what forced the mainstream media to start talking about it the first place.
A year after Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a year during which we also lost Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and many others, mainstream media may be silent, but social media and Black Twitter are definitely still talking. A social movement can’t take place entirely on social media, but when tens of thousands of people gather in solidarity in Washington DC, and the mainstream media barely says a word about it, “taking to Twitter” might be more important than most people may have ever realized.
Are we still talking about Ferguson? The answer is yes.