Share. Retweet. Repeat: The New Face of Activism

hands up don't shoot
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Written by: Nicole Moore twitter bird

I’ve been planning on writing a piece about social media activism for quite a while now. It was going to be in response to posts like this, that describe “Slactivism” as, “a feel-good measure that requires little personal effort or sacrifice on the part of an individual that has little practical impact in actually helping the involved cause.” I was going to tell you about how mad they made me. I intended to talk all about the use of social media in the Arab Spring—how it provided a space for people to share information, organize protests, and create unity across international borders. I think it would have been a fine post, but then injustice hit too close to home, and I found myself in the middle of a flood of social media activism.

“A feel-good measure that requires little personal effort”

I was watching Shark Week last Sunday night when I first heard that a young man had been shot by a police officer. That young man was Michael Brown. I had never met Michael, but he lived less than 15 miles from me. Although we didn’t live all that far away from one another, our experiences of St. Louis were vastly different. I live in a neighborhood where my neighbors are primarily white, upper-middle class folks, in a place that is full of resources and has low crime rates, where I know that I can trust the law enforcement…Michael Brown didn’t.

In all honesty, I don’t usually watch the news or read the newspaper. I’m a product of my generation, and I typically depend on social media for my news. The first post I saw about Michael was on my pastor’s Facebook page, but it didn’t take long for other Facebook friends and Twitter followers to start flooding my newsfeed with statuses and tweets about Michael’s death and the injustice that surrounded it. In no time, my friends from across the globe were sharing information about Michael Brown’s death- I could tell that awareness was increasing at a rapid pace and that people were hungry for more information.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading, and quickly wanted to know more, so I began searching the different trending topics, like #michaelbrown, #dontshoot, and #ferguson. I also turned on the local new stations, but quickly learned (from my friends on the internet, thank you very much) that the media wasn’t painting the most accurate picture of the situation. I began noticing a few key figures who were faithfully and objectively covering what was going on in Ferguson, mostly because they were being retweeted by my entire social media stream. I found myself checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vine accounts for updates throughout the day, and began sharing posts with my own friends and followers.

What started on the internet soon manifested itself in very tangible ways in my life, as I began receiving invites to prayer services, peaceful walks, and moments of silence via Facebook. I began canceling plans to be able to attend these events. After stepping foot in Ferguson for the first time, I found myself thinking incessantly about Michael Brown, the community of Ferguson, the systemic racism that exists in St. Louis, and my own role in it. With each developing story I saw on social media, I found myself stopping and praying. I began talking to my friends about justice, both on and off line. In short, the death of an eighteen year old boy who I had little in common with had managed to interrupt my life in the most meaningful way. None of these things that resulted from social media activism made me feel good. It was a messy week full of anger, sadness, blame, and guilt, but it was necessary for change.

“…has little practical impact in actually helping the involved cause.”

I know that my own experience won’t be enough to convince many of you that social media activism isn’t a cop-out. Many of you will claim that I’m the exception, or that I’m not doing enough, but that’s okay, because what’s going on in Ferguson isn’t about me. It’s about injustice. It’s about racism. It’s about the abuse of power. It’s about violence. Most of all, I think it’s about a divided community that has to try and find a way forward—a way that leaves little room for an eighteen year old to get shot for walking in the middle of a road.

Here’s the thing, friends: social media activism has done some pretty incredible things in the city of St. Louis this week, as well as around the world.

Did you know that over 2,000 clergy and community members gathered to pray with their feet on Thursday afternoon, as they peacefully marched throughout Ferguson? Many heard of it because of the event page on facebook.

People heard about the death of Michael Brown in New York City, where they marched and shut down Times Square while shouting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”

In similar fashion, the students at Howard University took this chilling photo with their hands in the air, a nod to the position that Michael Brown was said to be in when he was shot by the officer.

Arguably one of the most unexpected, yet powerful, usages of social media this week happened when Palestinian citizens began tweeting to those in Ferguson, voicing their support and offering advice on dealing with tear gas.

Or how about the folks who went and picked up journalists who had unjustly been arrested and left at the police station, miles from their cars on a night that was particularly heated? They found out about this and set up the rides via Twitter.

These are just a few examples of what social media activism can lead to, and this is just the beginning. Let us not forget about the thousands of conversations that have been happening on social media platforms about what transpired just over a week ago in Ferguson, Missouri. If this seems like “slactivism” to you, then I’m not sure what your definition of activism is. Sure, there are the people who have retweeted an article or two that will never take the next step in fighting injustice, but I’m not sure that their actions deem social media activism ineffective. I’m not aware of a single cause or injustice in this world that the entire population cared deeply enough about to act on, and so I’m not going to let a small number of social media users taint the good that I’ve seen firsthand in the past week. After all, some level of awareness has happened from even their actions, however small, both in their own minds and in the minds of those who follow them. The social media activism that has surrounded the tragic death of Michael Brown seems to be having a huge impact in the cause, despite John Conway’s definition of slactivism.

So where are you, and what have you done in the past week? Have you fought injustice, even in a small way? Have you made yourself aware of what happened in Ferguson on August 9th? Have you sought out credible news sources that are covering the story, and read what they have to say? Have you retweeted updates on the situation to your followers? Have you shared relevant articles on your newsfeed? Have you dialogued with friends about what’s really going on? Have you sought out opportunities to put your words into action? Have you made the trip to Ferguson? Have you organized a prayer walk or a moment of silence in your own hometown? How will you feel when you think back to this time in the future? How will you feel about your own participation in seeking justice for Michael Brown, supporting the community of Ferguson, or in your level of awareness about the event itself? In the words of Denee Menghini, “It just seems downright irresponsible to not pay attention to the news.  We can watch it on TV, read it in a paper, scroll through news websites, and even catch up with the world on Twitter.  We live in a time when the news is more accessible than it has ever been.” Are you being a responsible citizen in a time when the news is so easily accessible?

I want to leave you all with some action steps that can guide you no matter where you are on the spectrum of social media activism.

First, make sure you are informed. It’s okay if you’re late to the party, but it’s time to show up.

  • Colby Itkowitz of the Washington Post created a timeline of events in Ferguson, MO. Be aware that it is a starting point. Use this to guide the rest of your research and reading.
  • If you spend any time in the community of Ferguson, Rev. Willis Johnson is a name that you’ll quickly encounter. I’ve found this piece by NPR to be one of the most moving pieces of journalism I’ve heard thus far.
  • Seek opportunities to see what the community of Ferguson actually looks like during these times—not just the clips you see of police in riot on the news. 30Entertainment created this video to provide people with a look at what it was like in Ferguson on August 14th.

Next, make sure you are following credible news sources. Familiarize yourself with what happened on August 9th, but also familiarize yourself with what’s currently happening in Ferguson. Share the news that you hear from these people- even if you don’t live in St. Louis. In the words of Rev. Willis Johnson, “It’s not a race issue, it’s a human issue.” Here are some people I’d suggest you follow:-

  • Antonio French, the alderman of the 21st ward, has pretty much been on the ground in Ferguson since Michael Brown was shot. He has quickly become a trusted source of content by the city of St. Louis, and provides frequent updates on the situation.
  • Ryan J. Reilly, justice reporter from the Huffington Post
  • Amy K. Nelson, contributing editor of ANIMAL New York
  • Yamiche Alcindor, national breaking news reporter of USAToday

Pay attention to social media, and join in on the events and action steps that are being communicated through Facebook and Twitter.

  • If you live in the St. Louis area and are a part of a local faith community, encourage the members of your church to collect the items that are designated on this list by denomination. If you don’t live in St. Louis or don’t belong to a faith community, still feel free to take this list and gather the needed items.
  • Consider attending this Ferguson Forum, where representatives from The Ethics Project, The Association of Black Psychologists, The Association of Black Social Workers, and The St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition will be present to talk and strategize.

My space is limited, so I highly encourage all readers to share their recommendations in terms of articles, videos, people to follow, news sources to keep up with, and events both in the comments of the blog and of the Above the Fold Facebook page.

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