Introduction impact the offline world. I will

Introduction

What started out as a public outcry in
2013, following the acquittal of the police officer that shot Trayvon Martin,
has since then morphed into a full-blown social movement. This paper analyses
the formation and enduring existence of the Black Lives Matter movement through
new media.

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This analysis of the Black Lives Matter
movement (BLM) challenges to clarify how a hash tag, set up by three women,
could mobilize the outrage of an oppressed group of people across the US.

Special attention will be paid to how a movement that found its origins online,
can strongly impact the offline world. I will also emphasize that the movement
has flourished in the way that it has, because of the influence of new types of
media formats that are available nowadays.

 

The Black Lives Matter movement will not
have escaped the attention of those of us who have been observant of the
American political system. Since 2013 the movement has grown rapidly,
advocating the rights of black Americans both offline and online. The BLM
movement characterizes the power of new media to mobilize public outrage into a
movement.

 

The movement started in 2013 as a hash tag
(#BlackLivesMatter) on Twitter. The hash tag was first set up by Patrice
Cullors in response to outrage amongst the black community after George
Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting of young African-American Trayvon
Martin. Cullors shared a Facebook post of grief and condolences by Alicia
Garza, first using the hash tag to give a voice to the words of both love and
outrage. Alice Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrice Cullors subsequently decided to
give a voice to the outraged community of African-Americans, by setting up
social media accounts for the movement and by making their movement a presence
in the offline community as well, by organising a march and making signs (Day, 2015). As more shootings followed,
the movement grew, moving from an online outcry to a movement that was also
firmly present in the streets: after Ferguson, people rioted and a “freedom
ride” was organized. After Charleston, supporters of Black Lives Matter
occupied a shopping mall and later the phrase ‘Black lives matter’ was
merchandised and adopted by politicians (Day,
2015).

 

There are over 30 chapters of BLM across
the US at the moment and the Black Lives Matter movement has become a household
name in political debates. The BLM movement has a website where it records its
own origins and discusses what the movement stands for. What started out as
simply a hash tag has become a more ‘official’ movement with the addition of
this website and the creation of chapters across the US. This website also
allowed the BLM movement to create a more coherent ideology for supporters to
act in accordance with and turned the movement from a hasthag into a real,
tangible, social movement that could use political and social pressure to
advocate for black people’s rights. I will discuss the message and ideology of
the BLM movement in the following section.

 

Black
Lives Matter Ideology

Lempert and Silverstein (2012) originally use the concept of ‘message’ when
discussing politicians. I have used this idea to talk about the Black Lives
Matter movement as a whole, which can be seen as a ‘political actor’ in its own
right.  The message of the BLM movement
is presented clearly on the website of the movement. An important part of
message are the issues someone is concerned with. The issues that the BLM
movement is involved with seem straightforward: the lives of black people, and
specifically the fight for equality. ?The link with the Civil Rights Movement
is one that is quickly drawn and one that is drawn by the movement itself as
well. The BLM movement shows affiliation with this movement and their ideology,
already sending the message that their ideals are similar and that they are
speaking from within a tradition of black struggle and black empowerment.

 

While the issue of police brutality has
become somewhat imbedded in the BLM movement, the movement itself clearly
states that it’s concerned with a much wider range of issues, also regarding
oppression and marginalization within the black community. On their ‘guiding
principles’ page the movement noticeably states that ALL black lives matter,
referring especially to transgender and queer members of the black community. On
the website, the following statement can be found:

 

“?Black
Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings
of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism
that can be prevalent within Black communities, which merely call on Black
people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men
in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled
folk take up roles in the background or not at all.”? (Black Lives Matter,
n.d.). ?

 

The quote is important for what the Black
Lives Matter movement aims to be. On the one hand they quote the Civil Rights
Movement and identify with it, but they criticise it as well. At it’s core, the
Black Lives Matter can be seen as a feministic and LGBTQ-friendly version of
the Civil Rights Movement. It will come as no surprise then that the civil
rights activist the movement quotes, is female. In line with this, the BLM
‘origin story’ is called a ‘herstory’ by the movement, a term mostly associated
with feminism. The quoted text speaks out against the history of black
heterosexual, cisgendered men taking credit for the work of black, queer,
women. The Black Lives Matter movement calls out the black community itself on
its treatment of minorities within the community. While the BLM movement is
generally associated with police violence and the fight against racism, the BLM
movement is also at least partially a feminist movement for LBGTQ people

 

Using the parts of the message described
above, the ideology that the BLM movement promotes can be distilled. An
ideology is a perspective on the world, shared by a group of actors. It is
often associated with a certain set of symbolic representations, such as
discourses, images and stereotypes, as well as with certain behaviours and
ideals (Blommaert, 2005). The
ideology of the BLM movement is to create a society where black people are no
longer marginalized and wherein racism is truly a thing of the past. Emphasis
is placed on the fact that all black lives matter equally, and the ideology of
the BLM movement includes a strong disapproval of heteronormativity and the
patriarchy, somewhat putting it at odds with people within the black community
as well. It would be mistaken not to mention the strong influence of feminism
and feminist ideology on the ideology that infiltrates the BLM movement. The
BLM movement can therefore be thought of as combating more than one hegemony.

 

 

BLM
as a (networked) social movement

I discussed what the Black Lives Matter
movement is and what it stands for, but have not answered perhaps one of the
most interesting questions: how could a movement that started online through
the use of a hash tag lead to a nation-wide movement with 30 chapters around
the USA? A comparison with the Civil Rights Movement is a useful way to show
how social media and the internet enabled the quick mobilization of the BLM
network.

 

The Civil Rights Movement, mentioned
earlier in this paper, instantly comes to mind when thinking of social activism
by African Americans. This movement was an important for advocate for the
equality of black and white people. Often credited, as the ‘spark’ to truly
light the fire is the refusal to stand up by Rosa Parks and the following bus
boycott throughout Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King in 1955. Similarly,
Castells notes that (networked) social movements are “usually triggered by a
spark of indignation either related to a specific event or to peak of disgust
with the actions of rulers”? (Castells,
2013). In this way, social movements have not changed much in the digital age:
the spark for the BLM movement was a series of black people being killed by the
police. What has changed, however, is the speed and efficiency with which a
public outcry can morph into a social movement.

 

 

Castells (2013) coined the term ‘networked
social movement’ to describe the new movements that were being enabled by
online media. The Black Lives Matter movement certainly agrees with some
aspects of the definition of a networked social movement. The key of a
networked social movement is that it originates online and often has a clear
call to action to mobilize indignation (Castells, 2013). In the case of the
Black Lives Matter movement, the first call to action was for people to share
their stories of discrimination or police violence, further publicizing the hash
tag and allowing the movement to grow exponentially. Additionally, the BLM
started online and the Internet is an important part of the movement.  But is not completely a networked social
movement in the original meaning of the term.

 

An important aspect of networked social
movements is that they are leaderless: they are led by members of the community
and are relatively fluid. The BLM movement is not leaderless: founders Alicia
Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrice Cullors take on a prominent leadership role in
speaking to the media and presenting the ‘official’ BLM agenda. The BLM
movement calls itself a “leader full movement”, meaning it is led by
a collection of local leaders (Black Lives Matter, n.d.). This also points to
another way in which the BLM movement is not truly a networked social movement:
the movement has a very clear programme, which is presented on the website and
consistently communicated by the leaders to the public. This does not agree
with Castells’ definition of a networked social movement, which suggests that
these movements are rarely programmatic. Finally, networked social movements
are spontaneous. While the BLM movement started out this way, it has set itself
as a true organisation that no longer operates purely on anger, but rather on a
program with clear goals and actions in mind. As the BLM movement itself
states: Black Lives Matter is “Not a moment, but a movement” (Black
Lives Matter, n.d.).

 

Characterizing the BLM, therefore, can best
be accomplished by concluding that the BLM movement is a mixture between a new
social movement and a networked social movement. The characteristics of
networked social movements give the BLM movement a strong online presence and a
platform for the networked community to interact with one another and to speak
out. The characteristics of the more traditional new social movements, such as
a clear leadership and program, allow the BLM movement to carry out a strong message
and to organize offline actions effectively.

 

New
media: Hacking the hegemony

The features of networked social movements
that fit the BLM movement certainly aided the BLM movement in growing as fast
as it has. ents like the BLM
movement.

New media have enabled social movements to
no longer be dependent upon possibly hegemonic mass media, but to express their
ideology in their own way, through their own channels. New media, according to
Castells (2007), are spaces that are largely beyond the control of governments
and therefore allow the flourishing of anti-hegemonic ideas. The hegemonic
media monopoly that the Civil Rights Movement had to contend with is no longer
a big issue for the BLM movement. New media, and mainly Twitter, allowed the
BLM movement to produce a counter-narrative and become a counterbalance to the
hegemonic media and, by extent, hegemonic society. It was new media that
allowed thousands of African Americans to share their stories and to show that
racism was still a very real problem in the USA. The BLM movement did not need
to approach the media to tell the story about discrimination in the USA: they
invited black people to share their stories first-hand, on their own platform,
allowing the community to write its own story and to shine a light upon issues
that had been somewhat left in the dark before.

 

Through the hash tag #Ferguson, people
could stay up to speed with what was happening in Ferguson and how the
community responded to all the events. Live streams and Tweet-reports enabled
what Bonilla and Rosa (2015) call a
‘shared temporality’. People tweeting about Ferguson, wherever they were, felt
like they were participating in the campaign against police brutality. The
fast-paced access to news, combined with the freedom to contribute to the storyline
of a specific issue through hash tags, makes Twitter a particularly suitable
platform for campaigns such as the #iftheygunnedmedown campaign. The hash tag
#Ferguson, then, was not just people talking about the issue and sharing the
news, it was people intentionally making sure the hash tag would be highly
visible. It is clear hash tags are often used as a campaigning tool, instead of
just as an archiving one.

 

Social networks might seem like the dream
of any social movement and I just explained how it was indeed these new media
networks that allowed the Black Lives Matter movement to exist and grow in the
way that it has. It is, however, good to take a critical look at what it means
to be a member of an online social movement, and how that translates offline.

The term ‘slacktivism’, coined by Morozov
(2014) describes how ‘activists’ can take action from their couch by, for
instance, sending angry tweets. Morozov calls this kind of activism
‘slacktivism’: there is no risk involved, no real effort or danger and it
ultimately leads to little real action or change. Critics of online activism
suggest that this type of ´slacktivism´ erodes the spirit of what it means to
be an activist and state that these ´slacktivists´ do not actually promote any
change.

 

While the idea of slacktivism is certainly
one to be aware of, the BLM movement seems to not have suffered from it. The
BLM movement has been incredibly successful in taking its protests to the
street, in mobilizing people. According to Elephrame
(2016) there have been over 1600 demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter
movement. While some of these protests are made by just one person, many of
these are planned centrally, by a chapter of the BLM movement. The BLM movement
is successful in mobilizing people, because it doesn’t only use social media to
allow people to speak out, but also to organize offline protests.

 

The BLM movement has used new media to
organize protests. Facebook events are an important tool for the BLM movement.

The Facebook page of the BLM movement and its separate chapters show the events
and protests, and when and where they will happen. In terms of a choreographed
routine: they provide a stage and a time, but the players who will stand on the
stage are not predetermined. The BLM movement website is used in much the same
way, providing a ‘calendar’ with events for BLM protesters to attend, if they
want to, and the possibility to start their own events as well. It is this
planning that allows thousands of people to come together on a regular basis
with just one thing in common: they think black lives are important and are
willing to participate in events to show it.

 

 

#Alllivesmatter
and the war of hashtags

One of the reasons the Black Lives Matter
movement has picked up in the way it has is undoubtedly its name. The hash tag
is short, clear, and strong: it instantly conveys what the movement stands for
without needing further explanation. It is hardly a surprise that the format of
the hashtag has been used by other movements, like #Asianlivesmatter and
#Translivesmatter. Where these examples probably come from a place of
admiration and willingness to follow in the footsteps of the BLM movement, the
BLM movement has requested people not to adapt the hashtag in order to not
‘dilute’ the conversation, stating:

“Please
do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters, too. It
does, but we need less watered down unity and a more active solidarities with
us, Black people, unwaveringly, in defence of our humanity”. (Black Lives Matter, n.d.)  The
BLM movement suggest that ‘plagiarism’ of the BLM format can be used to undermine
the power that the movement has, which is perhaps exactly why its opponents
have chosen to do so in the discursive battle that they are waging.

 

 

Two hashtags used by opponents of the BLM
movement are ‘#Alllivesmatter’ and ‘#Bluelivesmatter’. Both hastags were
developed in response to the Blacklivesmatter hashtag and have served as a tool
in opposing and reframing the BLM message.

 

The #Alllivesmatter hashtag seems to give
those who follow it the moral high ground over the BLM supporters. It furthers
the narrative that the BLM movement does not care about the lives of those who
are not black. The #Alllivesmatter hashtag also furthers the narrative that
black people are already equal and that there is no structural racism present
in US society. As Butler (2015) puts
it: “If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, “all lives
matter,” then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in
the idea of “all lives.” (Yancy & Bulter, 2015). The ‘Alllivesmatter’
hashtag, according to BLM supporters, distracts from the message made by the
BLM movement and is therefore a strong, yet subtle, weapon in the discursive
battle being waged against the BLM movement, as the comic below shows.

 

While hashtags might seem like a small,
unimportant, part of online discourse, I have shown that hashtags can send a
very profound message with very little words. The hashtag that an actor uses to
describe a person, movement or action can effectively frame it in a certain
way. Hashtags, therefore, should not be overlooked in studying political
parlance.

 

 

 

Conclusion

The Black Lives Matter movement is a
movement in contemporary US society that is as polarizing as it is powerful. In
this paper I discussed the history and ideology of the Black Lives Matter
movement, as well as why the movement managed to be as successful as it has
been and continues to be. I also touched upon the discursive battle that the
BLM is waging with its opponents and the war of hash tags being waged on
Twitter.

 

I propose that the BLM movement has
combined the features of new social movements and networked social movements in
order to gain visibility and mobility. The BLM movement has shown how the Internet
can enable public outrage to grow into a structured and powerful social
movement. With the political landscape in the US changing dramatically with the
presidency of Donald Trump It is difficult to predict where the Black Lives
Matter movement will go from here, but one things is clear: the internet should
not be underestimated as a tool for mobilizing outrage, for better or for
worse.