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Social Media Activism and the Civil Rights Movement: Is Twitter the new protesting ground?

George Floyd, was a 46-year old Black man killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minn. on May 25. Since Floyd's killing, Black Lives Matter protests have been held out across all 50 states and around the globe. Among the marches, petitions and donations services in place to try to change systems shown to be working against minority communities, social media is another platform being used to spread awareness about the cause and Floyds death. Although online platforms are great to use in these situations for education and planning for bigger actions for change like marches and finding ways to donate, there is underlying toxicity with social media activism.

An Online Movement

Community activist Mariam Mazen remembers her time in high school. It was hell honestly, she says. I was the crazy feminist, the aggressive one, the protester. It was ironic because everyone around me would be posting about the same issues I was talking about, but I was the one being ridiculed. Mazen pulls out her phone and begins to show different social media postings people made about world issues.

I feel people care enough to post something on their [social media] story, but when there's an actual call to action there won’t nearly be the same amount of people willing to do it, she says.

Today, young people have created powerful political movements that have enforced change within political and social environments. Primarily online, self-titled activists are quick to create hashtags, viral posts, and contribute to the spread of false information. This form of activism has created a society labeled as the ‘oppression olympics’ and one dying to make themselves look ‘woke’. We now compare one issue to the next one as if it's a competition, go to protests only to take photos for Instagram showing off our witty posters or share clips on Twitter deeming ourselves the next Gloria Steinem. There are of course positives that come from social media activism but now more than ever, we need to do more.

How The Past Has Influenced

When we look at the movements that took place throughout the 1960s and 1970s, each activist that we know today like Angela Davis, Henry Morgentaler, Gloria Steinem, Martin Luther King Jr., they all started a grassroots movement, independent from one another. Yet rather than comparing and competing like we’re seeing with today's activism, they worked as a collective to learn and grow alongside one another.

Activism and activist have become more accessory terms for people, titles are thrown around rather than being given to those who actually have dedicated aspects of their lives to fighting for a cause. The influence of social media and the development of materialism within justice movements is causing forms of selective activism and identity politics rather than actual action.

Dr. Angela Y. Davis was a strong figurehead for the Black Power movement in the United States and a prominent activist for the Black Liberation movement. At the Toronto International Festival of Authors in association with Humber College last year, Dr. Davis explained to the crowd the importance of political and social movements. She said in her keynote speech that, as from the civil rights movement, there was a kind of knowledge that emerged precisely from the unfolding of the struggle that could not have been assumed in advance. Dr. Davis explained that without these different movements taking place while learning and working with one another, there wouldn’t have been as much knowledge and progress as we have seen to this day. Dr. Davis expressed her excitement in the current day movements led by young people such as Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, and Extinction Rebellion but she also passed her judgment on the divisions that we’re seeing between movements now.

The civil rights movement was a period of realization from different marginalized groups that their freedoms were limited compared to those at the top of social, political, and economic structures in Western society. Now, we are starting movements that address current-day issues, hoping to complete and continue the battles for absolute socio and economic equalities. The problem that today's generation is having is how to start a mass solidarity movement. With so much currently going on in the world, it can be overwhelming to keep up and stand in solidarity with everything. We’re finding ourselves fighting these individual battles and arguing on who has it worse and who has it better when we should be fighting in solidarity with each other, for each other.

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Of course no one can do everything, but it is possible to have a sense of the work we are doing whether it’s been in the community, on the campus, whether doing work against the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration, violence against women, in support of trans rights. Don’t worry about not being able to know everything and do everything, nobody can. Worry if you become so provincial that you assume that only the work you’re doing is at the centre of the world, Dr. Davis explained.

There is no wrongdoing in advocating for the rights and freedoms of individuals in society, but the issue with today’s forms of activism is that the online base of social justice has become so isolationist and focused on gaining woke points, that we have forgotten the importance of activism. McGill computer science student, Taylor Conn says he is known for his strong political beliefs. Conn says he does post about issues online, but like Mazen, he is also one to take action.

The idea that activism is more of a filter used by people to solidify their status as a good person is definitely something that exists today. I feel a lot of it comes down to the idea that people think they are really busy and they don’t have an evening or a weekend to protest so why not retweet to save a life'. When everyone is busy it’s easy to take the corporate produced woke posts and call it social justice, Conn says.

The Failure of Online Activism

We have a tendency within this generation to think that social media is the epitome of advocacy and awareness, but that has only been proven to be false. On June 2, 2020, also known as #blackouttuesday, people were posting black squares on Instagram, Facebook, and some on Twitter. The purpose of this day was to bring more attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and the unjust killings of black people in the United States. Although the intentions were good, this showed us an underlying issue. People who have been silent about race issues posted a black square on their timeline and called it a day. We truly believe that we can gain validation by seeming to be involved behind a screen. We can be whoever we like behind the walls of social media, whether it be an activist or a controversial leader. We believe that our online postings and our daily tweets are the only ones that genuinely play a significant role in our society to create a change.

Dr. Davis continues to speak on the issue of isolationism as it does fail to recognize the collective work in a movement: One of the things that really bothers me is that I get presented as one of the leading black feminists. I think it’s so important for us to develop a kind of humility and recognize that we have much to learn from Kurdish women, for example, and their struggles, and the men involved. We have a great deal to learn from Brazil, and to recognize that the change happens as a result of those connections.

Whatever work we’re doing is situated in a larger context. Now you may not know the details of that larger context but you’re aware that it exists, that it’s the canvas that serves as the backdrop to the work that you’re doing. Fighting for justice and equality is no easy task and social media is making it seem to today’s young generation as if it is. The influence that our phones and media platforms have are only causing us to feel superior, preventing us from developing that same humility Dr. Davis mentions.

Take advice from Dr. Davis. When asked what she would tell her younger self during a global movement, Davis said with a laugh, “To not take myself so seriously”.

The fight for justice may start with the individual, however, by working together toward an equal world where we stand up for one another and are willing to look up from the screen, we can make changes on a global scale.

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