Opinion

Solidarity On Social Media: What Did It Achieve?

A little over two weeks ago, social media fell silent for the day. Something quite unlike I’ve ever seen before, my feed was filled with black squares and the hashtag #BlackOutTuesday. Why? To show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis.

I’ll spare the details as I’m sure, thanks to the power of social media, you’ll be all too aware of this terrible situation and how it played out. Since, there’s been public outrage not least in the USA, but across the world and the BLM movement has arguably reached places it’s never been before.

What’s come to be known as ‘Blackout Tuesday’ was just the beginning in a revolutionary movement that’s demanded the change that BAME individuals have sought after for so long, and that they continue to fight for. I could speak about this, but instead I wanted to discuss what I know how to talk about best: social media and communications. I’m going to look at the Instagram blackout. What it achieved, and what it didn’t.

At the end of this post I’ll leave some links to petitions you can sign and things you can read to help support the Black Lives Matter movement.

#BlackOutTuesday – What Happened?

A collective action to protest racism and police brutality, #BlackoutTuesday took place on Tuesday 2nd 2020. It was originally intended for the music industry, a day for artists to refrain from promoting themselves but instead take time to reflect and learn about modern-day racism.

The notion soon spread, though, and soon everybody was involved. From big brands and businesses, to individuals showing their solidarity on their social media. Some outlets even produced blacked out, silent or minimal programming for 8 minutes and 46 seconds (the length of time police officer Derek Chauvin compressed Floyd’s neck, killing him). Popular Children’s TV channel Nickelodeon gathered mixed reviews when it broadcast a video repeating the words “I can’t breathe” for this length of time.

Blackout Tuesday

Soon the #BlackoutTuesday campaign had spread far and wide. Globally, even. So much so that to see anything other than this message was surprising and could even be considered distasteful.

Social media stood in solitary with the Black Lives Matter movement on Tuesday 2nd June, that’s without question. But what did it actually achieve?

What Did It Achieve?

Personally, I didn’t broadcast that I took part in #BlackoutTuesday, reasons for which I’ll detail a little further down. I have been silently signing petitions, reading articles and educating myself in my own way. I also was sure to abstain from posting on Tuesday 2nd June, out of respect for the blackout and from understanding the need to take some time to give the BLM movement the coverage it needs. Despite working in social media and maintaining quite an active profile, I’m not always an open book. Therefore whilst I participated in not posting on social media, I didn’t feel the need to join in with posting a black square on my social media feeds. I’ll explain why soon.

But first, let’s look at what #BlackoutTuesday achieved.

I know all too well the power of social media, whilst it comes with flaws it’s also a prolific catalyst for enforcing real change. There are an estimated 2.95 billion people using social media worldwide, and around half of UK adults say they use as a viable source of news. It’s impossible to deny the impact that social media has on our daily lives.

So one thing that absolutely cannot be disputed, is that #BlackoutTuesday made a statement – perhaps the boldest and most brazen that I’ve ever seen. If you’d not heard about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others from the BAME community who were the victims of a racial crime – you would have after Tuesday 2nd June. I was unaware of the social media blackout until I noticed it on my feeds in the morning, which led me to do my research and this is where I found out even more than I’d known before. I don’t doubt I wasn’t the only person to take this course of action. So if you’re wondering what the impact of #BlackoutTuesday was, in the simplest form, it is this.

A social media blackout cannot drive change on its own, but it can be the stepping stone to more people learning, more people speaking out and more people taking hard action that will make a difference. The original purpose of #BlackoutTuesday was to give the Black Lives Matter movement an open platform to educate and to demand justice.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the initiative achieved exactly what it set out to do. However, the blackout wasn’t without its flaws, which I’ll come on to now.

The Downfalls Of #BlackoutTuesday

The social media blackout made a statement, I don’t see how anybody could argue otherwise. We are so used to absorbing content on a daily basis from platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and so on. To have that paused for an entire day, at face value may not seem impactful, but when you think about the sheer volume of people who’d have had disruption to their daily norm – you can begin to understand.

Despite this though, there were a few downfalls to the blackout, in my opinion. They aren’t anybody’s fault, as the idea could not be pinned down to one person, nor was it intended for the wider population. People took the initiative into their own hands, and that’s where things can sometimes become unclear. Maybe in some circumstances, doing more harm than good.

Firstly, the idea of #BlackoutTuesday was to give a wider platform and audience for #BlackLivesMatter. However, with so many people wanting to get involved without doing proper research, there were lots of black squares posted on Instagram in particular with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. This led to the entire feed being populated with blackout posts, and attention was drawn from the educational and crucially important content that the blackout originally intended to give voice to. There were plenty of people commenting on blackout posts that contained the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, but it was an impossible task to vet every single post, and even then you cannot force people to take it down or amend it. The lack of research and the sense of wanting to be involved with a trend quickly led to the Black Lives Matter movement being masked by ‘Blackout Tuesday’ too, which arguably created more damage than the blackout did good.

Blackout Tuesday

Secondly, many people seemed to not understand the concept of the blackout. From what I could see, anyway. The interpretation of the day was that you were supposed to abstain from posting, or only post educational resources. Many people that I follow on Instagram were posting black squares on their feeds, and then posting on their stories as usual. Obviously there’s no set rules for the blackout as it was not a notion created by any one person, but nevertheless, I think that this made some of the posts a little redundant, which is why I chose to silently engage instead.

Thirdly, much like ‘Clap For Carers’ some interpreted the social media blackout as a moral obligation, which says to me that such people we’re involved more to try and show that they were being socially conscious, rather than actually wanting to support and encourage change. I’ve seen tweets condemning silence on social media, some that even went as far to say that if you didn’t post a black square on your Instagram feed, in solidarity with the blackout, that you are a racist. This, of course, is ridiculous. I think people have a right to support the BLM movement in any way they choose and this is the danger with viral social trends, there’s a degree of guilt-tripping that just really doesn’t belong.

And finally, I worry that for some individuals, they posted to be involved with the blackout then thought their job was done. Really, this should have only been the beginning. Just over 2 weeks on there have been protests both in the UK and in the USA, but there have also been countless petitions and reading materials shared so that we might all better educate ourself on racial injustice. I do wonder if #BlackoutTuesday became something trendy to be involved in, but then didn’t encourage people who took part to then go and do other things to encourage change? I noticed a tweet that highlighted that there had been 24.9 million posts with the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday, but that the Justice for George Floyd petition had just 11.8 million signatures. It seemed that some missed the point. 

Can Social Media Drive Real Change?

Even with its flaws, #BlackoutTuesday was a prolific stepping stone to some of the real change that has been seen over the course of the past few weeks due to BLM movement. Cases have been reopened, police forces disbanded and statues of slave traders have been taken down. There’s no way of knowing for sure whether these actions were the result of a series of events ignited by the social media blackout, but I would definitely argue that the message that it sent had an impact to some degree.

More Ways You Can Help

As I mentioned above, I think one of the major problems with #BlackoutTuesday was that not enough people took it further. There are a number of ways in which you can support the movement, even if you don’t agree with the protests that are happening right now. I fit into that category, and so instead I have been silently supporting the cause. Here’s some ways you can too.

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