Transformation

What Black Lives Matter activists can teach us about the pitfalls and potential of digital organizing

New research highlights the challenges of scaling grassroots activism through social media.

Karen Ross Marcia D. Mundt
28 March 2019
Students march because Black Lives Matter, Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 1 2015.
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Flickr/FibonacciBlue. CC BY 2.0.

This article was first published in Waging Nonviolence.

According to a recent Economist article, police monitoring of social media as a way of surveilling activists is now commonplace. Given the publicly accessible nature of social media, that should come as no surprise. However, it raises clear questions about the effectiveness of using digital platforms as primary organizing spaces, even while social media has provided important platforms for activists to broaden their reach and impact.

As researchers exploring the potential of social movements to scale the impact of their work, we recently interviewed 11 Black Lives Matter, or BLM, social media page administrators across the United States. Their responses provided us with insights into the potential challenges of using social media to scale grassroots activism work. Overall, these activists (who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that they remain anonymous) see the role of social media as positive, but they emphasize a number of challenges that digital organizing can create. In particular, their responses highlight the maintenance costs created by social media — due to the time it takes to respond to posts that co-opt or challenge their message — and security risks that arise for those who have an active online presence. However, we also found that activists have clear strategies in place to address these issues.

Maintenance costs.

One significant challenge BLM activists noted with respect to their online work is addressing the tension between being inclusive and remaining on message. On the one hand, a large following is a way of amplifying groups’ narratives and making sure that information about events and campaigns is widely disseminated. On the other hand, the larger the group, the more likely it is that followers or group members will actively try to disrupt that message. Indeed, several activists with whom we spoke noted that those opposing BLM’s message target BLM group media platforms in order to divert attention away from their cause. One group administrator explained, “social media gives everyone a chance to have an opinion about what you do and don’t do.” Another group administrator noted that counter-messages were a particular issue in social media spaces, saying, “When we first started this Facebook group, we spent a lot of our lives online arguing with people — painful argument after painful argument, with folks popping up [with] a knee-jerk response, often racist, about groups mobilizing around racial justice.”

For Black Lives Matter activists, much of this trolling occurs as a way of trying to shut down the conversation, often in the form of comments related to the counter-movement #AllLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter. As one administrator noted, All Lives Matter was often used as a way of saying, “Shut up.”

How activists deal with these comments varies by group, but in general group administrators agreed that it is necessary to constantly monitor online spaces, which in turn diverts resources away from amplifying the movement’s central messages. In fact, BLM group administrators spoke to the immense amount of time they dedicate to moderating their online social media profiles, in large part to stay on the defensive front against unsavory narratives or outright criticism. Some groups take preventative measures such as closing groups to followers only or requiring administrative review before accepting new members. However, these approaches ultimately limit public accessibility and the potential for reaching a broader audience.

A related issue is the “ideological blurring” that can occur as a result of organizing in the social media sphere. As activists noted, the same social media platforms that create possibilities for widely disseminating movement messages also limit the possibilities for activists to fully control who is, or is not, part of the movement. This is especially true with decentralized movements like Black Lives Matter: Even among groups that support the values BLM promotes, not all fit neatly into the movement — either in terms of their focus or level of engagement with advocacy and direct action addressing systemic injustices against black lives.

For example, two group administrators we interviewed were white women in solidarity with the movement, but otherwise unaffiliated with BLM or the Movement for Black Lives. The primary focus of these two groups is fostering understanding and awareness of police violence and structural racism amongst (primarily) white followers. The groups were notable in that they have no on-the-ground organizing component: They exist solely online as platforms for discussions. Yet, these groups consciously used “Black Lives Matter” as a framing symbol, thus demonstrating how the name can be applied to many types of initiatives that may not fully align with the movement’s central platform. In fact, one of the administrators we interviewed explained, “We are not an official group and have no connection to any other group. Probably, we shouldn’t even call ourselves Black Lives Matter.”

Our research ultimately suggests that in a decentralized movement such as BLM, the catchiness of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag may constrain impact by broadening the range of issues included under the BLM umbrella and leading to the use of content and symbols in unanticipated ways.

Risks to activists.

Events such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook data use leading up to the 2016 U.S. elections illustrate the potential for data collected through social media platforms to be exploited and potentially used in insidious ways. Moreover, social media platforms play a significant role in silencing activists by shutting down sites or banning individual users. These challenges exist for Black Lives Matter social media administrators too. In one of our interviews, the administrator shared that he had multiple pages as back-ups ready to launch when his main page was occasionally shut down.

Beyond these potential constraints on using digital platforms to amplify their voices, activists using social media face very real security risks, including the risk of physical harm. We know that activists in general are at risk of verbal or physical attacks from opposition parties or authorities. However, online activism via social media broadens the risk to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In an age where the lines between public and private life are regularly blurred, online movement or group administrators can easily be tracked down at home or in their local neighborhoods should someone wish to take spite.

Among the BLM activists we spoke with, several mentioned that they constantly feel a sensation of being watched, not only by individuals opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement but also by state and state-sanctioned groups. For instance, one activist told us, “I made a Facebook event for a vigil we held for [police shooting victim] Terence Crutcher. Literally three minutes later I got a call from [the local] FBI branch.” Another group administrator noted, “The police use social media a lot to stalk and look at you. So you know that you are not alone.”

Activists also noted the possibly of recognition by members of the public at large and the threat that this posed. One individual told us about receiving death threats. Because of their work with Black Lives Matter, another activist pointed out, “Your private life is completely out the window. People are legit starting to recognize us now. It’s just like, it’s gotten to the sense of celebrity, more than ever … We don’t use our real names … But somehow people figure out our entire names and everything about us.”

A few activists also noted that recognition was not only a personal security risk, but also a risk in terms of job security. For some of these activists, in other words, online activism and its associated challenges created risks to personal security as well as to their livelihoods. This can be countered to some extent by using pseudonymous accounts, but activists are no more immune to doxxing than are journalists or other digital platform users who have been targeted.

Lessons for social media activism.

The perspectives of BLM activists administering social media pages offer a better understanding of the tradeoffs between relying on social media platforms for organizing and the potential risks that are associated with social media use. Just as importantly, however, they also suggest important implications for other movements seeking to scale their movements online. In particular, the experiences of BLM activists illustrate that use of social media often requires investing significant resources in order to counter trolls or those challenging the movement. Social media use can also significantly exacerbate physical risks already associated with nonviolent civil disobedience and activism.

Therefore, activists should have strategies in place for minimizing risk. For starters, activists should be prepared to invest time and energy in conserving core messages against counter-narratives. Secondly, they should regularly monitor social media platforms to block trolls or to counter/report threats to limit the potential risks posed to movement activists with a high-profile social media presence. Finally, activists should consider the possibility of using “closed” or “secret” groups, which can provide some measure of safety. But they also need to be aware of the tradeoffs in doing so, in terms of minimizing some of the beneficial opportunities for message control and dissemination, accessing resources, and building coalitions.

Despite these challenges, the BLM activists we interviewed indicated that the positives of social media use outweigh the negatives. Indeed, the educational dimension of social media platforms cannot be understated. As one group administrator noted, when “we connect on social media and we pick sides … we don’t need to read books to get up to speed on things I [used to have to] sit in a classroom to discover.” Instead, social media provides the opportunity for activists to learn about legal theory and strategies for nonviolence — key organizing tools that might not be accessible otherwise.

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