Online Activism: #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackoutTuesday

Protest sign from a peaceful march held in Kitchener on June 3rd. Photo by Ahmet Yildirim.

Following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year old black Minnesota man who was arrested and then killed by a white police officer after being suspected of carrying a counterfeit $20 bill, activists took to social media to express their outrage for what had happened.

He walked into a grocery store and didn’t make it home alive. Because he was black.

Witnesses and surveillance videos recorded the moments before Floyd’s death, and activists were quick to share this video footage online.

Recently in Toronto, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 26-year old indigenous-black woman “fell” out the window of her high rise apartment building during a mental health crisis call that six police officers responded to. She did not survive.

The deaths of Andrew Loku (2015) and Michael Eligon (2012), are eerily similar to that of Korchinski-Paquet. Both of these black men were troubled with mental health and killed by police officers.

There are many more examples of deaths of black individuals at the hands of police officers.

The recent deaths of George Floyd and Regis Krochinski-Paquet, among other incidents, have re-ignited the #BlackLivesMatter movement, an international online activism campaign where people worldwide speak out against racial inequality and police brutality towards black people.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been around for over eight years, beginning in the Summer of 2013 after the acquittal of the neighbourhood watch captain who was accused of killing 17 year-old Trayvon Martin.

The Star has an extensive list of Black Lives Matter movements in Toronto between 2014-2016.

Support for this online movement is shown through likes, shares, comments, and other online engagements. Other well-known online movements which expose injustice include #MeToo and #BringBackOurGirls.

Many people are using their online voices for good, sharing informational posts under these hashtags. At the time of writing this, there were just over 20 million posts on Instagram using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. 

Although these hashtags help to achieve their intended purpose, to inform others about what is going on, it could be said that some people, especially brands and influencers, are using these hashtags to virtue signal. Meaning, they are only sharing posts to support a movement to make themselves look good in the eye of the public.

A prime example of this is #BlackoutTuesday, a one-day movement in support of #BlackLivesMatter which occurred this past Tuesday, June 2.

The original intent of this hashtag was to stop “business as usual” for music artists. Instead of promoting their work, they could support that of black artists. However, this hashtag quickly became the newest social media bandwagon to join with just under 29 million posts on Instagram.

This is almost 10 million more posts than #BlackLivesMatter ever, despite #BlackoutTuesday only trending for a day.

Google Trends graph of search trends for Black Lives Matter and Blackout Tuesday from May 29th, 2020 to June 5th, 2020

The above graph shows the Google search trends for both Black Lives Matter (blue) and Blackout Tuesday (red) over the past seven days in Canada. The spike for Blackout Tuesday at its highest point (9:00 am on Tuesday) is more than four times that of Black Lives Matter. This search trend is similar for other countries too, such as the United States.

Millions of people who hadn’t spoken up about the Black Lives Matter movement before Tuesday were suddenly posting black squares on their feeds with the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday. Nothing else: no promotion of black artists’ work, no informational content, no donation or petition links.

They just posted a black square.

The point of #BlackoutTuesday was not to be silent. It was to take a break from business as usual and use the time to support Black artists.

But since this was the newest “trend,” not many people were willing to find the reason behind why they were posting a black square and instead, posted it without justification.

Some who were uninformed also used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on their #BlackoutTuesday posts, drowning significant and informational resources that had been posted with this hashtag previously.

Activists who had been posting since the murder of Floyd were disgusted by this: displaying a black square with nothing else wasn’t “true activism.” Instead, it was a way for these people to make themselves look good and show their “activism” without putting in any actual effort.

One controversial example was Emma Watson’s posts on Instagram. The 30-year old white actress, model, and activist posted three black squares on her feed, each surrounded by a white border to “maintain her aesthetic.” Under these images she only posted hashtags: #BlackoutTuesday, #TheShowMustBePaused, #AmplifyMelanatedVoices, and #AmplifyBlackVoices.

Her followers expected much more than this from her, especially since she is someone who claims to be an activist. A user with the handle @atonemnt commented, “Black Lives Matter is not an aesthetic for your Instagram.” Others had similar responses.

She has since then posted artwork by Black artists along with additional resources about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Social media has the power to promote and build momentum for movements such as #BlackLivesMatter. However, it can limit the ability to have vulnerable and meaningful conversations. It also gives people the choice to hide behind their screen, not facing the consequences of their actions when they provoke and insult others.

Taking action needs to be carefully considered. And the overarching goal should be to effect change.

Some activists are informed about the movement and the victims affected by it. They are ready to share with the world what they’ve learned and are prepared to make change, standing up for what they believe in no matter the cost.

I commend these people as they are the ones who will bring this injustice to an end.

Some believe anyone not posting about the movement is part of the problem, going as far as to say that “silence is violence.” What these people may not acknowledge, however, is that posting on social media is not the only way to get involved.

Additionally, does posting on social media what you are doing to support the movement show that you are supporting the movement, or is it merely a way to flaunt just how good of a person you are?

Posting meaningful content on social media is the quickest and easiest way to share relevant resources. However, there is more that can be done to further support the Black Lives Matter movement:

You can read the news and become educated on who these victims are.

You can donate (if financially able) and sign petitions to support these victims and their families or to support changes to institutional practices that are prejudiced against race.

You can have tough conversations with the people in your real lives, educating those who are oblivious to what is happening in the world around them.

You can attend peaceful protests and marches to make a change in your community (although you should take caution and wear a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19).

Most importantly, though, you can better yourself by asking yourself how you can be more aware of your privilege and use that privilege to invoke change.

In a world where social media consumes us, people should not feel obligated to hop on these “trends” to prove that they aren’t terrible people.

The pressure to post something about this movement is extraordinary. The truth is, taking the time to listen and learn is more important. Likewise, it is vital to consider the motivation behind posting on social media about these movements. 

As Steven Bartlett, a Black entrepreneur and the CEO of Social Chain posted on his Instagram account,

“Any quick and easy action like a social media post, that endeavors to solve such a complex and systematic issue, is probably not going to be a meaningful and effective action. So if someone’s first reaction wasn’t a Tweet or Instagram story, maybe they’re thinking a little deeper.

As a Black man that has experienced racism throughout my life, I don’t want people to post because they think they have to or because they feel pressured to. I would rather they spent their time listening, learning, and reflecting. After all, real change starts at home.”

Bartlett’s full post can be read here.

For some people, especially those who know nothing about this movement, educating themselves and those around them is a great first step. And most of the time, that first step is the most difficult. Be gentle with others and their learning curve. It may take longer for some to reach a point of recognition and remorse.

The reality is, though, that people like George Floyd and Regis Krochinski-Paque are being mistreated daily and dying because of their race.

Something has to change.

Whether you choose to post on social media, or to participate in a change in your offline life, being aware of what is happening to these people, saying their names, and working towards equality is what really matters.

If you are looking to get informed or show your support, here is a master post of ways to help which is updated frequently. It includes petitions, donation links, and resources for additional reading: Black Lives Matter.

This article has no intent to harm or discriminate. Its sole purpose is to inform and shed light on an untold perspective on the #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackoutTuesday movements. All opinions stated within this piece come from the author, who acknowledges her white privilege.