By Megan Kern and Sabrina Fani
It seems that every generation acquires something that the previous could only imagine in their dreams. Generation X experienced the development of computers; Millennials revolutionized the use of cellphones; and Generation Z embraces social media. With every advancement, the initial societal response is one of wonderment and empowerment as people have the capability to do what others before never could. Yet, over time the wonderment fades, and empowerment is replaced with outrage or disinterest as many abuse or “incorrectly” utilize the technology at their disposal. The year 2020 began on an interesting note as the Coronavirus wreaked havoc on the medically vulnerable, the health industry, and the worldwide economy. Then, societal unrest grew as people around the world became fed up with the heightened social and racial injustices that should have been eradicated hundreds of years ago. People have joined ranks amidst the pandemic to bring about change that society has craved for generations. The Black Lives Matter movement and other Active Allies have picked their fight, and their ultimate weapon is Social Media.
THE EVOLVING ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Social Media and Coronavirus
Over three months have passed since the Coronavirus caused worldwide shutdowns, and the world is still watching, learning, and adapting while in search for a new sense of normalcy. Social distancing and quarantine have threatened peoples’ mental health, face masks have caused separation as if it were a political divide, and even as restaurants and retail facilities begin to re-open there is an eerie sense that things are still not normal– and will not be for quite some time. Society has been ravaged throughout time by illness and countless plagues: of particular note is the Spanish Influenza of 1920 and, even more recently, the SARS virus of 2002. Yet, along with the difficulties of living during a pandemic, there is one advantage to living during the Coronavirus outbreak than any other pandemic before it…social media.
While many find social media burdensome to navigate as it requires a great deal of combing through posts that lack substance, the use of social media has assisted in maintaining the majority of peoples’ way of life. Specifically, many brands have utilized their social media platforms in order to inform and broadcast what their company is doing to help out their consumers and society as a whole. Examples include large scale brewers like Tito’s Vodka and BrewDog beginning to manufacture hand sanitizer when there was a shortage and Miller Lite tweeting to promote their #Virtualtipjar campaign which aimed to raise money for bartenders who have been unemployed due to the Coronavirus. Additionally, countless restaurants have used and developed mobile apps for food delivery and home entertainment services like Netflix and Disney+ have released new movies and television shows with new watch party capabilities and other improvements to give back to their consumers. Moreover, mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest have launched new features that aim to promote and support small business owners as well as assist consumers.
The power of social media influencers has been more prevalent than ever in face of the virus. Many are using their platforms to encourage the public to support small business who are suffering as a consequence of the pandemic. From recommending products and restaurants, hosting virtual events and discussions, and collecting donations, influencers have encouraged the public to contribute to brands who otherwise would be inactive as a consequence of the pandemic. In fact, research has shown that many customers trust celebrities, athletes, and influencers for brand advice.
Social Media and the Black Lives Matter Movement
Although life during a pandemic is challenging, the human race has showcased its adaptability, resiliency, and drive to continue moving forward. At first this included returning to work and improving online education opportunities. More recently, however, people have joined forces in support of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and systemic racism. Millions of people have lost their jobs or are living paycheck to paycheck, and with time to reflect have become “thoroughly fed up” and “beside themselves with grief and concern and despair.” Protests have been organized around the world in response to the killings of African Americans like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. As a result of the stay-at-home orders brought about by COVID-19, people who would normally have been at work now have time to go to a protest or a rally. Thus, even amidst a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement has become the biggest news story and continues to grow as protestors display support and activism that has not been seen for half a century.
While concern about the pandemic is high, people understand that even sitting at home may not protect them from contracting COVID-19. So, many have decided they would rather risk it and go out and “fight for a chance to live a life full of dignity.” In this way, communities are really trying to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Like its impact on life with the Coronavirus, social media has been able to majorly influence, expand, and encourage participation and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Social media’s role and its overall impact on social movements, although seemingly counterintuitive, is an under-explored area of research. However, researchers have found that social media creates “participation opportunities” that many people ordinarily would not have available to them (especially during a pandemic). Such opportunities include Facebook pages and groups that provide safe spaces for protestors to meet and discuss ideas, and collective group hashtags on platforms like Instagram and Twitter.
Movements that utilize social media “have frequently been larger, have scaled up more quickly, and have been flexible in tracking moving political targets and bridging different issues,” compared with other conventional movements. Yet, social media has its challenges and limitations as well. First, social media, “on its own, cannot build and/or sustain movements for social change.” For real change to be achieved, social media must be combined with more “traditional” forms of organizing, like protests and other ground level activism. With social media’s mass accessibility, activists must constantly monitor how marketing strategies like “#BlackLivesMatter” are utilized, thus “diverting resources away from amplifying the movement’s central messages.” A major limitation Black Lives Mater administrators face is dedicating time to moderating their online social media accounts “to stay on the defensive front against unsavory narratives or outright criticism.”
One of the largest collective agendas of this movement utilizing social media, however, was the #BlackoutTuesday, or #TheShowMustBePaused, movement. This movement was created in reaction to the protests by two Black women within the music industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang. The original goal of the hashtag was to “encourage a day of reflection and silence throughout the industry by refraining from posting on social media and allowing marginalized voices to take the floor.” The idea quickly grew to a widespread social media Blackout in which users, primarily white people, vowed to go silent on their social media platforms in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. What was intended to reinforce the movement ironically did the opposite: the “showiness” of people posting a Black box with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on their social profiles only served to “derail and obscure actual BLM content through inconsiderate use of the hashtags.” The abundant and improper use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag drowned out informational posts on social platforms, as the influx of Black box posts distracted individuals from the deeper conversations that are essential for change. Activists encouraged people to delete such posts with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and instead donate to the cause. Nevertheless, the protests have encouraged people of all backgrounds to educate themselves of the history and impact of structural racism as well as inspire tangible actions that can help the nation move towards equality. Notably, the movement has “sparked endless self-reflection from white spectators and other bystanders about how to respond.”
Social platforms have proven to be more than just a platform for the cause. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube amongst others have committed to utilize their brand in support of Black Lives Matter movement. For example, Twitter has provided various recourses and tips to help its users better educate themselves on how to be active allies and make a change. LinkedIn vowed to use its social media profiles to share perspectives from Black employees. Joining the movement, YouTube pledged $1 million in funding to support organizations addressing injustice. Additionally, Instagram has prompted its users to continue the conversation using the hashtag #ShareBlackStories. Now more than ever, the tools made available through social media to organize and resist create a more promising resolution of the Black struggle.
The entertainment industry also recognizes the problem of racial inequality and many companies have used their voice to actively support the BLM movement. For example, ViacomCBS went dark for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on national television, representing the time in which George Floyd was restrained, to stand in solidarity with victims of racism. Additionally, Disney, Warner Brothers and the Academy of Motion pictures amongst others have issued statements denouncing racism in support of the Black community. Several entertainment executives have also aligned with the cause by writing memos to their employees, reinforcing their support.
HOW TO BE AN ACTIVE ALLY
In the wake of civil unrest and protests in demand for racial equality, there are simple steps each person can take to contribute to the collective support of the Black community. In order to put real change into motion, it is imperative to practice active allyship rather than “performative” or “optical” allyship where individuals only do the bare minimum by creating a post that does not go beneath the surface, break way from current systems that are in place, or actively support the community’s efforts. The following are ways to be a positive, active ally:
As human beings, each person has implicit biases. Self-education is a meaningful way to move away from such prejudice. Platforms such as Harvard’s Project Implicit allow individuals to take a series of tests to see where your unconscious biases lie on topics such as race, gender, age, weight, disability and sexuality. Additionally, it is important to understand the meaning and implications of white privilege. Social media postings, such as one by Courtney Ahn, have effectively illustrated the issue.
There are several books that are meaningful resources to learn about the history of racial injustice in the United States. Such books include “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluho and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. Moreover, several Black social media users and influencers are using platforms such as Instagram and Facebook to share individual stories and experiences that can help better educate non-Black communities.
Additionally, podcasts are great resources for learning. NPR’s “Code Switch” discusses how race affects society from politics to sports to pop culture. “Pod Save The People” focuses on highlighting the voices of activists and leaders on issues such as race and social justice.
Donate to Meaningful Organizations
If you are able to, donating to organizations who are dedicated to alleviating issues surrounding race is a meaningful way to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Here are a few:
- Equal Justice Initiative provides legal representation to those who were wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.
- NAACP builds political power and ensures the wellbeing of communities of color.
- Black Youth Project 100 is a transformative campaign aiming to put an end to gender violence that Black women, girls, femmes and non-conforming people face every day.
- Let Us Breathe Fund was created in response to the murder of Eric Garner, providing funds to Black organizations that fight racism.
- The National Bail Fund Network pays bail for the thousands of protesters who have been detained across the United States in the past few weeks.
- Official George Floyd Memorial Fund contributes to the Floyd family.
Support Black-Owned Businesses
Especially during the Coronavirus pandemic, supporting Black-owned businesses is a positive way to keep such restaurants and shops in business. For example, VICE has a guide on how to find black-owned restaurants by state. Additionally, New York Magazine has a list of 125 beauty, clothing and fitness brands amongst others to support.
Use Your Voice
Speaking about issues surrounding race can be uncomfortable. However, using your voice to educate others around you is a powerful tool that can be used to break down existing barriers. Social media is a great place to start. You can amplify and share posts from the Black community and encourage followers to follow your lead. “Parents” offers a helpful guide for parents to speak to their children about race by age. On the flip side, Cosmopolitan offers useful tips for young adults to speak to their parents about the Black Lives Matter movement.
In an age where economic and social prosperity should be abundant, society finds itself stunted by illness, social and racial inequality, and an inability to change the status quo. People everywhere feel change at their fingertips, and for many their smartphones, touch pads, and tablets are where their activism begins. Hence, in the face of negativity, hatred, and even death, the world has managed to unite through hope, media, and determination to see a brighter tomorrow. We are living in the age of social media and it is our time to make our mark on history.
 Taylor Christie, Brands Helping Out During Coronavirus Crisis, Social Bakers (Mar. 24, 2020), https://www.socialbakers.com/blog/brands-helping-out-during-coronavirus-crisis.
 Nikki Gilliland, How Social Media Platforms are Helping Small Businesses Amid Covid-19, Econsultancy (May 22, 2020), https://econsultancy.com/how-social-media-platforms-are-helping-small-businesses-amid-covid-19/.
 Kori Hale, Small Business Should Bank on Social Media Influences During Coronavirus Pandemic, Forbes (Apr. 16, 2020. 10:27 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/korihale/2020/04/16/small-businesses-should-bank-on-social-media-influencers-during-coronavirus-pandemic/#573566833ad3.
 Isaac Chotiner, A Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Explains Why This Time is Different, The New Yorker (June 3, 2020), https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/a-Black-lives-matter-co-founder-explains-why-this-time-is-different.
 Marcia Mundt et al., Scaling Social Movements Through Social Media: The Case of Black Lives Matter, Sage Journals (Nov. 1, 2018), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2056305118807911.
 W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics 742 (Cambridge University Press ed. 2013).
 Mundt et al., supra.
 Aja Romano, #BlackoutTuesday Derailed #BlackLivesMatter. A Community Organizer Explains How To Do Better, Vox (June 3, 2020, 2:40 PM), https://www.vox.com/2020/6/3/21278165/george-floyd-protests-social-media-Blackouttuesday-lace-watkins-on-race-interview.
 Brittany Wong, The Best and Worst Ways to Support the Protests on Social Media as a Non-Black Person, Huffington Post (June 3, 2020, 10:09 PM), https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ally-posts-social-media-support-protests_l_5ed676c1c5b68b11fa256ab3.
 Andrew Hutchinson, How Social Media Platforms are Responding to the #BlackLivesMatter Protests Across the US, Social Media Today (May 31, 2020), https://www.socialmediatoday.com/news/how-social-platforms-are-responding-to-the-BlackLivesMatter-protests-acros/578908/.
 Bijan Stephen, Social Media Helps Black Lives Matter Fight the Power, Wired (Nov. 2015), https://www.wired.com/2015/10/how-Black-lives-matter-uses-social-media-to-fight-the-power/.
 Nellie Andreeva and Dominic Patten, Media Companies Voice Support for Black Lives Matter Amid Massive Protests Over George Floyd Death, Deadline (May 31, 2020, 11:40 AM), https://deadline.com/2020/05/netflix-tweets-support-Black-lives-matter-protests-george-floyd-death-1202947463/.
 Elaine Low and Audrey Cleo Yap, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBO and Other Hollywood Players Take a Stand in Support of Black Lives Matter Movement Amid George Floyd Protests, Variety (May 30, 2020, 10:52 PM), https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/netflix-hulu-amazon-hbo-Black-lives-matter-george-floyd-protests-1234621292/.
 Wong, supra.
 Kathryn Lindsay, 10 Books About Race Non-Black People Should Be Reading Right Now, Refinery 29 (June 1, 2020, 10:02 AM) https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/06/9848927/Black-lives-matter-books.
 How You Can Be an Ally to the Black Lives Matter Movement, Great Big Story, https://www.greatbigstory.com/guides/how-to-become-a-better-black-lives-matter-ally.
Megan Kern is a second-year law student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law inCleveland, Ohio.
Sabrina Fani is a second year student at Loyola Law School concentrating in Business and Entertainment Law.