#BlackLivesMatter Movement - A Sprawling Global Force
The current #blacklivesmatter movement, now a sprawling global force, seeks ostensibly to commiserate with Americans still grieving from the widely shared video-recorded murder of George Floyd, but also to draw attention to regional concerns of police brutality. A polyvocal outpouring of condolences and support occurs in the streets and communities within the United States but also across the globe, from London to Tokyo, Amsterdam to Brisbane, Vienna to São Paulo. The polyvocality emerges in marches and die-ins on bridges and main squares, on posters with phrases ranging from Racism is a Virus to All Lives Matter Once Black Lives Matter, but also in online spaces of discourse, where voices of solidarity are embattled by individuals seeking to confuse and obfuscate the veracity of the pain and trauma endemic to #blacklivesmatter.
Even within the laudable efforts among individuals far and wide who brave not only the potential for, in some documented cases in the United States at least, violent if not also lethal reactionary force by police, these same individuals also risk infection by the pandemic strain of COVID-19. Just weeks ago, it was suddenly commonplace to conduct one’s professional affairs, if at all possible, from home. The wearing of masks has become not only a fixture of modern social interactions but also has emerged as a candidate for fashion design. Social distancing, highly likely to become the phrase of the year 2020, is arguably a new normal in ways perhaps not yet fully understood by the general population. Despite these enormous challenges to health, protestors, whom some label as rioters in an attempt to redirect the discourse, maintain the determination for some semblance of social justice, of an end of police brutality, and through concerted efforts at coordination for public assembly conducted online using social media platforms. It is perhaps this last point that deserves careful consideration and reflection on previous informed opinions and research on the power of social media to effect real world change.
Activism conducted on social media has a relatively long history with varying points of criticism and praise. Perhaps the two most common strains of thought, equally at odds with the other yet also not entirely distinct, are sometimes referred to as paradigm shifters and slacktivists. A paradigm shift perspective of social media and activism harkens back to the early days of the internet, when former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow penned his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996. It declared that online spaces are independent terrains of discourse immune to the influence of elites and corporations. This rather naïve view was transformed and modified by thinkers such as Henry Jenkins and Clay Shirky, who espoused the notion that social media can effect real-world positive change and, when followed to its logical end, this means that the use of social media for activist purposes necessarily also implies a positive outcome that is largely one associated with progressive, liberal-oriented causes. Slacktivism thinkers, for example Evgeny Morozov, Malcolm Gladwell, and perhaps most recently Siva Vaidyanathan, claim that social media are simply one part of a larger strata of tools available to effect social change. These thinkers maintain, perhaps most pessimistically with Morozov and also Susanna Zuboff, though from a decidedly techno-narcissistic frame, that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. only enable a kind of enthusiastic starting point, an exuberant initial motivational push and one that is very difficult to maintain. Vaidyanathan compared social media likes, comments, retweets, etc. and similar engagement to the consumption of potato chips: that once you start liking, sharing, viewing, etc. it is difficult to stop – but that all you have done is that, liked, shared, viewed, meaning that you have not actually enjoyed the fruits of actual social change or progress. A much earlier view along the same lines is associated with Neil Postman, who controversially claimed that individuals ensconced by televised content were simply engaged in a long and slow process of amusing ourselves to death, the eponymous reference to his most known work.
Caution is advised with such perspectives. One need not simply think that the current #blacklivesmatter upsurge falls into either category. As with any social upheaval, one event is hardly ever the cause. True, there have been clear and disturbing uses of social media which may not upon first glance seem like activism. Take the example of the treatment of the Muslim-minority Rohingya people in largely Buddhist-controlled Myanmar. Vaidyanathan reported in his book Anti-Social Media that the use of Facebook, specifically, its program aimed at third world countries known as Free Basics, enabled the Myanma to coordinate hateful messaging directed at the Rohingya prompting what the United Nations excoriated as genocidal massacres of the minority Muslim population. The same is true as with the case of Robert Bowers who executed eleven worshipping Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or with the case of Brennan Terrant who killed 51 individuals worshiping at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Both and sundry other cases involve the strategic messaging within what I like to call spaces of online discursive practice, whereby ideology is maintained and constantly reconstituted through interactivity and, unfortunately, real world violence often if not always inspired by conspiratorial lines of thought.
This is why the current #blacklivesmatter movement is different. It is one tethered inexorably to real world pain, trauma, and uncertainty. It does not need or would not benefit from conspiratorial thinking because those most affected individuals are always already marginalized. Trump’s most fervent supporters are fond of rhetorically presenting themselves as victims of some indeterminable global cabal to undermine their status as white, Christian, and therefore wholesome and victimizable individuals. Perhaps no better example is the now infamous march of neo-Nazis in Virginia in 2017 where chants of ‘We will not be replaced’ were actually artifacts of deeply latent conspiracy thinking, and if not directly then implicitly supported by Trump when he asserted that there were good people on both sides. That sentiment of being replaced is intimately connected with the antagonism displayed by individuals who simply cannot embrace the reality of #blacklivesmatter. The temptation to view one’s own, largely majoritarian in-group such as the white Christians in the United States, as a target of hatred and violence despite evidence to the contrary, is a central tenet of conspiratorial thinking. Rhizomatic organizations likes QAnon, a nefarious Trumpian group of conspiracy theory-intellectuals, or the ongoing #boogaloo movement, which advocates a violent insurrection of the United States government despite also being tacitly pro-Trump, all represent clear and present dangers to American democracy. While #blacklivematters protests continue to organize and assemble, the true danger is not within those ranks but within suspicion and paranoia, endemic to individuals and groups who support Trump’s invocation of the military to quell the protests. It is perhaps best phrased so: it is not that conspiracy theories actively undermine democracy; it is rather that the widespread belief and sharing of such ideation represents a democracy in decay. With calls for the abolition of police, continued vigilance alongside cavalier attitudes toward wearing masks in the age of COVID-19, and with an uncertain 2020 presidential election with concerns about in-person vs. mail-in voting practices, the current #blacklivesmatter movement may surely but slowly accomplish more than simple campaign slogans as Make America Great Again or ever, perhaps shockingly, Yes We Can. Time will tell, but doubt not the machinations on social media as they seem, for the moment at least, to have some staying power in real world engagement.