“Don’t Like my status, do something about it!”: An Interview with Khadijah White on Social Media Activism

Everyone is talking about 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and for good reason. On February 26, Trayvon was shot and killed as he walked to a family member’s home in Sanford, Florida. George Zimmerman, an unregistered Neighborhood Watch leader, called the police to report a suspicious person in the gated community. Although police told Zimmerman not to pursue Martin, he still continued to do so. (For more details around the case click here.) As evidence continues to emerge, a couple of things remain clear: Martin was unarmed carrying a bag of Skittles and iced tea, Zimmerman was carrying a gun that he admits using to shoot Martin in what he claims was self-defense, Trayvon Martin is dead, Zimmerman remains a free man and a family and community continue to grieve and seek justice for Trayvon.

Where did you first here about Trayvon Martin? Chances are that you probably heard about this tragedy through a social media network (e.g., Facebook). Before the national news began to cover this story, social media networks were outraged over the inaction of the Sanford Police department in thoroughly investigating and prosecuting Zimmerman in the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin. As a response to this, many took to social media to raise awareness around the case and mobilize people to action. For instance, Martin’s family posted a petition on change.org that became the fastest growing petition in the site’s history, people sent bags of Skittles to the Sanford Police Chief and then there are the hoodie marches. Several hoodie marches have been organized in honor of Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hoodie when he was shot and killed by Zimmerman. The hoodie has taken on multiple meanings—a stance of solidarity, a way to honor Martin, a call to end racial profiling and discrimination. In many ways, social media has played an integral role in organizing and igniting collective social action in seeking justice for Trayvon Martin. Social media has also become a way for people to align themselves with this cause. For instance, many people have posted pictures on Facebook in hoodies and recently the Miami Heat wore hoodies as a reaction to injustice around this tragedy.

In a time where our generation is constantly criticized for being passive toward injustice, the rallying around Trayvon Martin indicates that we are very active. In fact, social media networks can provide a platform to raise awareness and act on social injustices in a manner that was inconceivable decades ago. I recently had the opportunity to discuss social media activism with Khadijah White, a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on the connections between race, gender, media, and politics. Below we discuss social media activism, particularly regarding current events. Enjoy the interview and don’t forget to weigh in on the discussion!

MP: Briefly describe social media activism (SMA).

KW: SMA is the user-generated deployment of social networking and other online tools to raise awareness about specific issues or events, register dissent, mobilize supporters, create and maintain an activist community, and/or organize targeted actions.

MP: What are potential benefits of SMA?

KW: With the onset of social media, people can now think of themselves as part of a public sphere, they are not just receiving messages, they are deliberating upon and responding to them. We can go on Twitter, Facebook, etc. and actively engage in discourse around a variety of issues and expect a result—whether it is conversation or rally, as we’ve seen around the Trayvon Martin case. We also see a faster speed of narrative and user input to a broader audience. Being a part of social media networks allows for the possibility to engage more diverse types of people around a variety of issues, where before people were pretty much stuck talking about things within communities that shared the same attitudes and beliefs.

MP: What are some pitfalls of SMA?

KW:  Sometimes issues can veer off into lifestyle politics and consumer focused politics (e.g., I’ll just buy a bracelet or t-shirt). So a potential problem is using these consumer focused models of activism, which is not about engaging in systemic causes of a movement but is focused more on funding someone else’s idea about how to intervene on a particular issue. The problematic piece there is that we don’t observe their proposed intervention, or think about its consequences, we respond solely to the emotionally evocative piece that oftentimes revolve around money and consumption.

A recent example of this is the Kony2012 campaign, in which there is an emotionally manipulative video where a lot of facts are not present, and are outright misleading, but people consume it and an immediate response is ‘I need to do something.’ Many may feel that their responsibility to a particular cause is over when they buy a bracelet or t-shirt and they no longer feel the need to continue thinking about an issue or working on it. This type of removal of responsibility may be a downside to SMA. Certainly, people donating to a specific cause and feeling as though their responsibility has ended is not unique to the advent of social media; however, with social media people may assume that they are now activists because they wear a bracelet or a t-shirt. Wearing a bracelet or t-shirt may serve a quick reactionary purpose that is over once the trend is over.

We also do not observe the same level of fact checking that is used with old media. For instance, when a video goes viral, things can be erroneous, and any corrections that occur may not be as widespread as the initial viral video.

MP: How does SMA parallel activism that we might have seen in previous generations. What are some similarities/differences?

KW:  Some similarities are that people have always used communication technology to gain access to other people and spread the word, from the mimeograph to the email. However, compared to activism in previous generations, we can connect with people across the country and across the globe in a more dialogic way. We can also disseminate our ideas and actions instantaneously. For instance, the march held for Trayvon in NYC had approximately 40,000 viewers in an hour – that means it was able to involve 40,000 more people than were able (or willing) to attend. Additionally, activists can play an important role in constructing the news rather than a news source framing the discourse.

I also want to push against the notion that people aren’t really activists anymore because of cyber media or the idea that people won’t get out in the streets because it’s so easy to do something from home (e.g., sign an online petition). Chances are that many of these people who only engage in online activism would not have participated in collective action before the rise of the web. Now they can feel a sense of agency and involvement that would not have happened without social media, even if it were from home.

With the rise of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, it’s really hard to make the argument that young people aren’t politically or socially active anymore – or that social media interferes with such engagement. In fact, we’ve seen over and over the ways that social media is used to mobilize people to come together for rallies or protests. For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally requested that Twitter stay up and running during the presidential election in Iran because of its usefulness in organizing protests and keeping the global audience informed on the contest. Our entire political terrain has been altered as a result of these technologies and the way people use them.   Certainly, social media can be a tool to help change occur, raise awareness, and keep people informed. It’s hard to imagine a social movement without these tools now.

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