Hands Up, Take It Down: The Power of Online Activism

Photo by @demidism

Photo by @demidism

On July 10th 2015,  the Confederate Flag finally came down from Columbia, the South Carolina state capitol. In May of 2000, legislation was passed to remove the flag from atop the State House dome, but two weeks later it was simply erected on the lawn. After Dylann Roof’s act of terror, the collective outrage of social media made it apparent that no similar consolation would be accepted. A #TakeItDown plea spread through Twitter and onto the streets of Columbia, where numerous rallies were held chanting the demand.

Along with the demonstrations, the history of the Confederate Flag was fully explained on Twitter and Tumblr by prominent voices such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, enlightening the uninformed and exposing the beacon of “southern pride” as nothing more than hateful symbolism. Activist Bree Newsome’s heroism only furthered the cause, and the flag eventually met its fate.

Many agree with Donald Glover that “Twitter activism is wack” because it’s “only half of activism”, but what “half” can be credited with this turn of events? #TakeItDown didn’t fade away as a glorified meme, it became a movement’s rallying cry and a symbol that took on the confederate flag head on, conquering symbolic hatred and putting white supremacy on notice. Though the “stars and bars” are merely an icon of still inherent racism, the magnitude of online activism’s involvement in its removal should not be downplayed.

Critics argue that there are limitations to social media which prove it a non-viable breeding ground for revolution, but that’s “half-empty glass” pessimism. As activist Maya Peterson, notes, “simply because one is not marching and putting their lives in danger for a cause does not make them less of an activist.“

Community organizers and activists such as Deray McKesson, Alicia Menendez and others keep their thousands of followers informed of the latest instances of minority oppression, many of which go unreported by major news outlets. “When the media does not cover (issues such as the recent burning of African-American churches) it is the reblog and the share button that allow these stories to reach people around the globe almost instantaneously,” says Peterson. Additionally, discussions about the nature of white supremacy foster valuable insights that instill collective solidarity much in the same manner that speeches of yesteryear did. Community Organizer Synead Nichols reminds that “having a space where one can speak freely about very difficult topics is very important right now. We’re having conversations with folks from the United States all the way to New Zealand. The whole world is now on display.“

The power of social media isn’t exemplified solely by the spreading of knowledge or mockery of diversionary journalism, however. Activism is defined as “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” The internet has long been infected with the virus of bigotry, but the online social justice community is looking to change that. A quick look into the comments section of many major sites will display users freely spouting racist, hateful rhetoric. Such is also the case on every social site. Forced resignation isn’t relegated to well-known figures like Rachel Dolezal, there is an emergence of social media users who will take everyday bigots to task by calling their employers and getting them fired.

Peterson, notes “bigots are too often able to continue to live comfortable lives while involving themselves in violent and nonviolent acts of terror. Members of the KKK for example are allowed to remain completely anonymous while simultaneously being members of what should have long ago been deemed a terrorist group.” This practice may not bring sweeping social change, but in social media activist’s refusal to be silent about racism, they’ve shattered the myth that tweeting does “nothing”.

Another fallacy is that social media is comprised of “Slacktivists” who merely talk online and sign petitions in lieu of participating in marches and demonstrations. Peterson explains “I have simultaneously responded to idiotic Facebook posts and marched, these things are not mutually exclusive in the slightest.” As noted before, it’s a presumptuous exploit for one to decide the value of another’s agency, but it’s also inconsiderate of personal circumstance. How many demonstrations can someone in a small Iowa town participate in? How many young activists share the following circumstance with Peterson?

“Marching and protesting is dangerous stuff, especially with the technology police are developing to stop protesters. I’m only 19, there are times my mom wouldn’t let me out of the house if she knew I was going to march, so I had to sit on my computer, research, and post…conversations would be started and that to me is undoubtedly a form of activism.”

Social media has ushered in myriad avenues to exercise social agency, but its value seems to be missed by an older generation used to a form of activism intensely dependent on the electoral process. When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, Oprah decreed “what I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want…This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.”

It’s extremely nearsighted to pretend a movement defined by phrases like “hands up, don’t shoot” doesn’t have goals, but she and other older activists have nevertheless seemed to miss them, perhaps because the borderline-paramilitary model of past organizations has given way to movements that resemble one collective, with progressive groups pledging solidarity along the lines of race, gender, sexual orientation and more. Additionally, modern activists aren’t as fixated on voting alone to solve ills as much as first overhauling the system so that candidates devoted to their concerns have a chance to win.

#NotOneDime and #BlackOutBlackFriday were two hashtags that served as rallying cries after Ferguson county prosecutors didn’t press charges on Darren Wilson for murdering Mike Brown. Black Friday occurred the same week as the non-verdict in 2014, and total sales were reportedly down $6 billion from the previous year. Is that not stating a cause and following through with (in)action?

At this point, ignoring the power of social media is an exercise in willful ignorance. The term “twitter activist” and derivatives can no longer be uttered mockingly, as those very people have contributed to demonstrative change. Yes, there are some that are over reliant on social media, but they don’t take away from the work of those who use the platforms correctly. People may still believe online activism is a 50% effort, but it’s undoubtedly of 100% importance to the future of modern social justice.