Protests and activism in the social media era

Local News

RALEIGH, N.C.(WNCN) – Cell phone video of George Floyd’s final moments are now the fuel to nationwide protests. Shared on social the video quickly gained traction online turning the world’s eyes to the Minneapolis Police Department.

In the Triangle, young activists and protestors with cell phones in hand can quickly share their experiences on the ground.

“Social media has empowered so many different communities to be able to tell their stories in ways that they hadn’t been able to do it before,” said Mark Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University.

Neal said the use of social media during protests ongoing now democratizes new coverage. He said it for every news coverage.

“We can have multiple counter narratives of folks capturing different perspectives and offering different perspectives that we hadn’t seen historically in this country,” Neal said. He said those narratives include peaceful protest, protestors confronting bad actors or interactions with police.

Neal acknowledges there are limitations. He said there is always the chance for new technologies to be used for nefarious reasons. He also said there are instances it doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Sometimes you literally only get snippets. You see a moment but you don’t see what happens before that moment or after that moment so again that’s why there has to be a certain responsibility attached to the folks who are doing the good work on the ground in terms of using social media and handheld digital devices to capture the moment,” said Neal.

A Pew Research Center study found half of Americans have used social media in to engage in political or social-minded activities. In their published study, Activism in the Social Media Age, they said social networking sites have become digital debate stages.

It found most Americans think social can give people a voice. At the same time, it found many people also believe it can detract from important issues.

Source: Pew Research Center

“There were one million tweet about Mike Brown’s shooting before there was any prime time news coverage of his death. I think that set a template, if you will, for ways folks who are using cell phones and handheld devices could on the one hand activate the attention of mainstream media but more importantly in the context of these protests we are seeing now,gives folks an on-ground perspective,” Neal said. He added that perspective enhance the overall understanding of an event and fills in gaps.

That Pew Research Center study, published in 2018, tracked notable spikes in the use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.

Source: Pew Research Center

The hashtag continues to be used.

“The thing that is really amazing about social media and this dynamic that we call Black Twitter is literally a decade ago we could not imagine the kind of intervention that social media would make,” said Neal.

Source: Pew Research Center

Pew Research Center’s study concluded that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to report they engaged in the activities above. According to the study, “Most notably, Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans (by a 24% to 9% margin) to say they have used social media in the past year to look up information about rallies or protests happening in their area. However, notable shares of Americans belonging to each party have done some sort of politically related activity on social media recently: 59% of Democrats have performed at least one of these five activities the Center measured, as have 45% of Republicans.”

Neal said capturing protests on camera has come a long way since Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful protest. His invitation of photographers and reporters gave the country a look at injustices on the ground. That mission now evolved into the age of social media.

“Literally a decade ago we could not imagine the kind of intervention that social media would make,” Neal said.

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