Online social movements frequently see unprecedented peaks of engagement, and then flame out just as quickly as they became viral. On Tuesday, June the 2nd, #BlackoutTuesday achieved such peaks, with over 24 million posts of black squares on Instagram. The intent of posting these images was to signify a pause from social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement– not only through the solitary act of the post but also by muting all notifications and spending time that would be spent browsing social media on education and introspection about the movement. In their relentless pursuit of appearing performatively ‘woke’ to friends and followers, countless people feign interest in these movements, diluting the original noble goal of Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang to use the black squares as expressions of solidarity to bring forth more discussion about widespread inequality. Unfortunately, amidst this swarm of posts, helpful information and resources for activists on the streets have gotten lost.
At first, viral social movements harness the extrinsic motivation of our desire for social conformity, thus eliciting relatively superficial engagement with the cause itself and leading to an unsustainable level of initial growth in social momentum. It is tragic that any cause must suffer from society’s restlessness to move on to the next viral trend, but Black Lives Matter has far too often found itself at the short end of this stick. A simple search on Google Trends reveals that interest in the movement waned significantly after the initial peak of the movement in July 2016 until protests broke out following the death of George Floyd. In order to prolong the success of the movement, a more meaningful connection with the cause is required. To that end, the viral nature and proper completion of the steps of the challenge offer up some merit, since education and introspection about the movement present the opportunity to build the necessary ‘intrinsic’ motivation to make the movement a sustained and reliable vehicle of public support.
The real outcomes of posts of black squares with a slew of hashtags, however, have been reductive at worst and nebulous at best. For starters, an abstruse but important objective of this act was to reduce clutter on social media so that the voices and stories of black activists could be amplified on these media. The hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter had erstwhile been used for vital information and resources for activists, and documentation of police injustices. Now, a search for #BlackLivesMatter on Instagram yields rows and rows of black squares. Thus, these well meaning posts have had quite the opposite intended effect, drowning these voices in the constant barrage of these posts. Furthermore, simply posting black squares on social media to fulfil a social obligation to conform is not enough. By any measure, education and introspection about systemic social injustice is a far more important step in the observation of #BlackoutTuesday.
Many of us who are unable to directly participate in protests might want to seize this as an opportunity to do our bit– and we must recognise that our efforts to provide funds and resources to those involved can go a long way. Conversations about the long history of oppression, and systemic racism and inequality– from the boardroom to the boulevard— bring these issues to the forefront. If you must share the black square, why not add the contact information of relevant charities, and dates and locations of protests? Or recommendations and ideas for other ways people can help out? Why not extend your activism by highlighting the stories of activists and organisations that have made tremendous progress in moving towards a goal of racial equality?
Benjamin Franklin once said “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Take the anger you feel right now and channel it into educating yourself and learning more about injustice around you. Use that knowledge to change the perspectives of the people around you, whether they are your family, friends or relatives. By making the movement a collaborative effort, we can meaningfully engage in it and contribute to its growth rather than become a part of its eventual demise.
We must speak out against injustices that plague societies. Over the past few days, the two of us have taken the time to educate ourselves about the history of Black Lives Movements and to understand how police brutality in the United States disproportionately affects black communities. Although we lack first-hand experience of the pain and the suffering that black people and families suffer from, that shouldn’t serve as an excuse for us to shun responsibility for learning about it and empathising with their pain. This piece is an attempt to steer the conversation towards productive methods of grievance resolution and we are open to ideas which can allow us to contribute in a way that makes a difference.
Ahmad Aurbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all victims of racial injustice faced reprehensible treatment; and their deaths have rightfully sparked a global conversation on systemic and cultural racism. While energy and outrage are well spent in bringing about change in the United States, we must also raise our voices against the oppression of minority groups within our own countries and call for action to end inequality and injustice. We must feel the same empathy for disadvantaged minority groups in our own countries as we do for black people in America. Our constitutionally guaranteed rights of equality in the eyes of the law and of opportunity must transcend empty words and become lived experiences.