Black Lives Matter and the power of social media


By Fibonacci Blue

Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis (CC BY 2.0)

We all check our social media arguably more than we need to. However, social media can also be a useful tool to galvanise people against injustice. 

The video of George Floyd being killed by police in the US state of Minneapolis sent shockwaves around the world. Posted on social media, the video ‘went viral’, causing the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement inspired citizens to take a stand against police brutality and the systemic oppression of People of Colour in the USA and internationally. The ripple effect led to protests in France, Germany, Spain, the UK and even here in Australia.

While racism and injustice are certainly not new, Black Lives Matter caught the attention of people around the world, via their devices. But how? And why? And how can we harness social media to bring more issues into the spotlight?

Derick Wanganeen is a 30-year-old Indigenous man from Port Lincoln on South Australia’s far west coast. Mr Wanganeen is a former AFL player with the Hawthorn Football Club, and is now a football coach and advocate for Indigenous people based back in Port Lincoln.

Living there most of his life and growing up in the age of social media, he is aware of the powerful role it can play in keeping injustice in the spotlight.

“Without social media these movements wouldn’t be as big as they are today,” Mr Wanganeen said.

However, Mr Wanganeen warned against people jumping on board a cause just because it is ‘trending’.

“People should speak up on issues if it bothers them, not because it’s a trend right now,” he said.

“But because you genuinely feel like it’s the right thing to do.

“Speak up and educate your friends, parents, brothers, sisters, because it sparks conversations that need to be had.”

Mr Wanganeen acknowledges that social media can bring people together for good.

“[It] doesn’t matter who you are and where you come from, you can make a difference and it’s amazing how social media can unite people from all over the world in a positive way,” he said.

One such example of this was the South Australian Black Lives Matter protests, held in Adelaide’s Tarntanyangga (Victoria Square). The first event, held in June, was promoted through Facebook, with an event page created by Adelaide Campaign Against Racism and Facism and Sosblakaustralia SA Action Group, describing the Black Lives Matter movement as an “historic moment for the black struggle and the fight against systematic racism”. The page has over 3000 likes.

At the time, the Covid-19 situation was still unfolding and there were some safety concerns about the protest going ahead.

However 6000 people attended it without an arrest or a subsequent spike in cases.

Prior to the protest, event organiser Natasha Wanganeen, 36, was quoted by the The Advertiser as saying she was not concerned about the numbers of protesters.

“It doesn’t matter if it is five people or 5000 people, we will speak up for our rights,” she said.

Dr Ron Hoenig overcame his fears about Covid-19 to attend.

“I was quite scared, I’m 70. I’m the risky age group,” Dr Hoenig said.

The University of SA-based academic has a doctorate in journalism and cultural studies, and felt it was vital to be there.

“It felt really important to do this in solidarity of Aboriginal people,” he said.

“400 people have died in custody and nobody has been held responsible.

“We want this to end.

“We want to set the record straight.

Dr Hoenig described a peaceful and Covid-conscious event, with everyone wearing masks and carrying banners and placards.

“There was a real sense of real intention in what people were doing there,” he said.

Fellow attendee Anna Schoof said she found out about the protest via social media.

“I had seen everything all over my social media pages and wanted to contribute through my presence and content,” she said.

“It was amazing to see people coming together peacefully… I am proud of my community for rallying together for an important cause.”

Based in Adelaide, South Australia, Collette Snowden has a doctorate in media and communications. She has written several academic articles on social media and its effects on communication in the modern world.

“Social media has allowed movements [like the Black Lives Matter movement] to stay in the public eye much more prominently,” she said.

“The difference is that in the past, the media would report on the immediate incident, the police would get it under control people would be arrested and then it would disappear… Social media gives activists a medium to keep the issue in front of people in a way they couldn’t do when they were relying solely on reporting.”

Social media usage is only growing exponentially. “Fifteen million Australians use Facebook alone – 60 per cent – and one in three minutes is spent on social media,” said Tamara Caire, General Manager of Adelaide-based social media agency Social Media AOK.

“Many brands are also seeing that these channels are not just broadcasting mediums to push sales and marketing messages, but they are also looking at how they can create positive social change with carefully thought-out campaigns and commentary,” Ms Caire said.

Australian brands and influencers have also been posting their support for Black Lives Matter, and sharing their vows to further educate themselves on the movement, to their followers on social media.

Brands such as Lush with their following upwards of 253,000 Instagram followers posted a black square that received 3000 likes and thousands of shares on the app.

Instagram in particular was a flurry of activity, with online supplier The Iconic posting also. They have 500,000 followers and their photo collected 4000 likes and 165 comments.

But is posting a black square enough? Is using social media affecting campaigns?

“Social media can be viewed very negatively by some: ‘people spend too much time on it; it’s diminishing real human connection’,” Ms Caire said.

She feels people should be educated on how they can harness the power of social media for positive impact, but also on how their actions can have negative impact.

Ms Caire also expounded on how social media can provide a very quick means to mobilise large numbers of people over a common cause.

“One of my favourite examples of this was the #illridewithyou movement from 2014 following the Lindt cafe siege in Sydney,” she said.

“Another more recent [example] would be Celeste Barber’s bushfire fundraiser, where some $51 million was raised.” This was when Australian comedian and celebrity took to her social media to rally behind Australia when it was devastated by bushfires in 2019-2020. Due to her loyal following, an immense sum was raised.

Mr Wanganeen acknowledged how the voices and concerns of black men and women can be amplified on social media when influencers give their support.

“People with a platform like Instagram with a massive following have a big influence on shedding light onto today’s issues in a positive way and educating millions of people on what it’s actually like to be a black man or woman living in today’s society,” he said.

“It’s great for people to see it from our perspective.”

Social media has helped bring incidents of racism and injustice into the light.

“Without a doubt, racism is huge around the world,” Mr Wanganeen said.

“Seeing a video of a black man or woman on social media that I have never met before speaking about how they have just been racially vilified hits home because I can relate to that, so you instantly feel a connection and feel that hurt with that person.

“It has happened in some shape or form to all of us.

“At the end of the day we are all human beings that look a little different.

“Educating people is the key.”