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On Social Media and Protest

by Dr. Meredith Clark
June 16, 2020

I spoke with Dr. Martha Jones recently, who discussed how critical media is to amplifying narratives, but how often national media is drawn to the sensational. I'm curious what you make of that and how you think the media shapes cultural understanding? 

There are solidified practices and standards to reporting. I used to be a journalist, I know the pressure. There are specific guidelines and values, and these were created in a time where most women, and certainly people of color, were locked out of journalism. It's a style and an approach that is insufficient. But these practices drive them to look for conflict as readily as they can find it. They tend to focus on the symptom of the problem, rather than the problem itself. 

Rather than taking the time to research the history of what has led up to this moment, journalists go for what is obvious, easily accessible and falls in line with mainstream journalistic standards. 

How do you think a moment like this would be best reported on?

This moment should be recognized as a part of a larger narrative, a narrative that is about struggles for liberation, for equality, for equity, and for justice. It is a story that is as old as the country itself, if not older. We should be connecting the dots between the protests of 2014 through 2016, the Rodney King riots, the Civil Rights Movement and the the riots that ultimately resulted in the assassination of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. 

We should focus on the condition that leads people to decide that they are willing to get out into the streets and protest, in a time when it is safer to be at home. 

There’s also seemingly a disconnect between news on the internet / social media, and news from the mainstream. The LA Times had a headline that read, “Looters Rampage Across Region”, which felt incredibly tone deaf, because we have the internet, we know “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, and where that history comes from. 

Screen Shot 2020 06 16 at 10.40.11 AM

The looting headline is an example of the sloppy conflation of protesting, rioting and looting. This goes back to what I mentioned before, there are practices that have really been refined in the newsroom. This particular narrative of “looting” is central to the mainstream media coverage of protests. It's easy to quantify what property losses are going to be, and it's easy to describe a chaotic scene as something being violent. 

It is much, much harder to do the work of telling an intricate and nuanced story about what brought people to protest in the street. They focus on the end result of the actions of few. In a lot of cases, the reporters weren't there when the fires were started, and they weren't there when the looting started. They don't know who actually started those things. And even if they did, the bigger story is what is it that drives people in this community to take advantage of the opportunity to take things?

That is a story about poverty. That is a story about capitalism, and about how it is an unsustainable system. 

The reporting on this has leaned into the sensational language wise. I live a block from the first scenes of fire and violence in LA. And yes – it was bizarre to see things on fire but I would never describe it as unrecognizable, or scary, or anything else.

Journalists have gotten used to being treated like a protected class. While we need journalists to be respected as the valuable citizens and contributors that they are, they are also human beings like the rest of us. 

People every day are exposed to the violence and terror that is being reported on, but they don't have a platform to amplify what life is like on a day to day basis. They're relying on journalists to tell that story and to tell it accurately, fairly and with cultural competency. When journalism focuses on the traumatic, rather than what may seem banal, it's a disservice to people in those communities who will still be dealing with oppressive circumstances once the fires are out, and once everyone has gone home, and once news media has moved on to its next story.

There are a lot of smart, seasoned editors issuing apologies and re-committing to “learning” right now. It is confusing to me because this is not something they are learning, this is something they are facing. Do you think that the current language is effectively making way for a more diverse body of journalists and people reporting the news? 


The statements I am seeing are not realizations, they are apologies and appeals for forgiveness when someone has been confronted with the truth of what their choices have been over the years.

The apologies really belong to the individuals in the newsroom who tried to present different perspectives, to give context to the stories, or to call something out as problematic, but were ignored, belittled, told they did not belong as part of the newsrooms. Those apologies are really theirs. 

The only thing that would give me any confidence in people is action. So yes, you get out here and you say, “I'm learning.” All right. What can you put into action as a result of what you have learned today? What could you do differently? Could you go back and apologize to your staff members who tried to help you with this early on? Could you reevaluate how people in your newsroom get promoted? Can you reevaluate how you write about the communities you’ve hurt? Could you go back and review the coverage that was done under leadership and look for areas where you consistently fell short? For me, the confidence will come when I start seeing some of those actions being taken.

Does social media play a role in harnessing the power of a movement?  

I think the power really lies in the connection of people.

Social media is a spector in shifting social morals or policy, and the way in which we view issues.

That power lies in how people decide to connect and how they use their intellectual and social capital to organize and strategize and mobilize around the causes that are important to them. I think we really need to be reminded of that power structure, and be wary of becoming too focused on the connective technology itself. 

At any moment, these corporations that have created the social networking tools can go dark or they can silence people. We have seen all of these things happen in our lifetime. Mark Zuckerberg has said that he doesn't want to be the arbiter of truth. That's not what anyone is asking for. What people are asking for is for these platforms to take responsibility for creating spaces that have been harmful in measurable ways. Deadly rumors have been spread in countries like India or Pakistan on Facebook or on WhatsApp. Because Facebook will not intervene, even though they may know that the rumor is not true, people have been murdered. There's a possibility for the platform ownership and the platform developers and the folks working on the products to have greater influence, but I think most of it lies with the people who are on the platform.

Do you have criticisms of some of the ways in which these platforms are used? There are elements of performance or virtue signaling that are inherent to social media in any context, how do you think about that in conjunction with a social movement?

I am really appreciative of just individuals, and small communities joining in. It shows that online discourse does have an impact outside of online spaces through a process of what I call reaffirmation. 

Affirmation happens in the online space. Someone tweets about something, another person responds, whether positively or negatively, and they are able to begin this constructive discourse. Reaffirmation happens when those conversations are taken into offline spaces and put to work. For example, a coffee shop in my neighborhood is donating all its tips to the movement for black lives. When they do something like that, you extend those conversations into spaces where people who aren't on social media can engage with them. I think in that way, the individuals and smaller groups participating is very useful.

I do sort of chafe at brands making these gestures when they have workers who are marginalized and unprotected. They need to do better internally. They're focused on their messaging, because their messaging influences their sales and their profits, but we know that they don't have the work to back up what they're saying. That feels like exploitation of a moment and exploitation of a message. It feels really cheap.

I'm glad that Sephora is willing to dedicate 15% of its store space to brands by black creators and black creatives, but I'm more concerned with the workers that Sephora laid off in the middle of the pandemic.

How are you taking care of those people? That to me is more pressing, and that's where I get a little bit frustrated with corporate entities joining in the discussion.

What about the activist-celebrity? 

I have a couple of different perspectives on that. 

There is a responsibility that lies with us, the people who are giving them our attention, and who have positioned them as leaders. People can't be leaders without followers. People pick out certain voices and rely on them as trusted sources, while lacking the understanding of what activism means today. That's one level of the problem.

And then there's another level where you see people who maybe started with the best of intentions in doing this work, but it has become a gateway to celebrity for them. I find it problematic that people who want to lead, are taking advantage of the opportunity to be in the public eye. Because soon, that becomes about power dynamics that have absolutely nothing to do with the work and everything to do with reputation and with ego. Our progression is severely hindered by personal ego.

When influencers, people who were influential because of something else they did, get involved, I find it interesting. I'm glad that they're willing to use that platform to speak out about issues when they are fact-based and well researched and speak in a way that can translate things to multiple audiences. I have trouble with it when they haven't done their homework, because I really do see that as a wasted opportunity.

Do you feel hopeful that the people in the streets and the conversation about black lives will remain in the national conversation for a long enough period of time to create change?

No. I have evidence that that won't happen. That it's too difficult for people to keep that in mind. Specifically the individuals whose lives since death have mobilized people to get into the streets. 

As I was doing research on Black Lives Matter in 2015, and that was just 2015, people could not tell me the names of the individuals whose names had become a hashtag. They simply could not recall the names of people. They knew their story. They might know the pieces about what happened to them, but not their names. 

Over time you see the attrition of attention and acknowledgement. People settled back into a more comfortable routine. With the lack of actual intervention, people become disenchanted with the efforts that they put forward. They've been out in the streets, they've been protesting, they've organized petitions, they've even burned some shit down when we had to – and very little has changed. They get discouraged.

We tend to carry the sadness and the discouragement with us as emotional weight. We have seen this before with Eric Garner, and I think that's one of the things that contributed to so many people being motivated to get out and protest this time around. We've got that traumatic memory that we can draw on, and yes, it can be reactivated again, but it goes away. It's unfortunate. And I think we're beginning to see that with Breonna Taylor’s story right now.

I think you are probably right, but I was hoping you might have a different answer.

I can say this. Before we heard about Breonna Taylor's death, before we heard about Ahmaud Arbery’s death, before we heard about George Floyd's death, which I did not watch, I was hopeful – which is not a word I use very often. But I was hopeful that because of what we were experiencing in the pandemic, people would begin to think about a different world and start working towards what a different, more just, more socially equitable world might look like. I do hope that we can capitalize on that momentum and that racial justice will be a part of what we build up to.