Activists and organizers are using Twitter as a vehicle for change.

Activists and organizers are using Twitter as a vehicle for change.

Black Lives Matter is receiving more support than ever. Net support for the movement increased by twenty-eight points among registered voters, compared to nearly two years ago. Across the country, activist groups and organizers sprung into action after the police killing of George Floyd and other black people killed by law enforcement.

Social media plays an important role in society today. Recently, advocates and organizers have been leveraging its power to advance their messages of police accountability and racial equity through hashtags like #SayHerName, #DefundThePolice and #BlackLivesMatter.

But how effective is digital activism? Can social media really inspire change?

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Sherri Williams Assistant Professor, American University's School of Communication
  • Jacqueline LaBayne Organizer, Freedom Fighters DC; @FFDC2020


  • 12:35:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. There's been a lot of in-person activism here and around the country. Yesterday, protests went late into the night, including police clearing an area protesters declared an autonomous zone. But there are many people who aren't in the streets, instead participating virtually. Social media activism is not a new concept. We've covered it on this show. However, in this moment, the fight for racial equality is gaining tremendous traction online.

  • 12:35:34

    KOJO NNAMDIThe Black Lives Matter movement is seeing more support than ever before. This support is even more evident on social media, where, according to the PEW Research Center, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was tweeted over 8 million times on the day of George Floyd's death.

  • 12:35:50

    KOJO NNAMDISo, how are activists using social media to spread their messages about racial equality? And how effective is it? Joining us to have this conversation is Jacqueline LeBayne, organizer for Freedom Fighters DC. Jacqueline LeBayne, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:36:08

    JACQUELINE LEBAYNEOf course. Thank you so much for having me. I'm honored to be here.

  • 12:36:11

    NNAMDIJacqueline LeBayne, were you involved in events last night, in person or on social?

  • 12:36:17

    LEBAYNEI was involved in actions on social media last night, due to being pepper-sprayed the night before. So, I was home clearing and rinsing out my eyes and rinsing my body, because, as you've seen on social media and different videos, the police did pepper spray us, even though it was banned a couple weeks ago in the D.C. area. So, I was one of the few that got pepper-sprayed, so I was resting last night. But we did have some people on the ground just, you know, providing medical work and supplies needed for those people.

  • 12:36:54

    NNAMDIWhat to you is so different? What to you is so special about this moment in time?

  • 12:37:01

    LEBAYNEWhat is so special to me is seeing how many people have finally woken up to the injustices that are happening in this country and that are putting their lives on the line to fight in the midst of COVID. We're seeing a record number of first-time protesters, youth getting involved. So many people from different backgrounds, different races, genders, sexual orientation, religion. All over social media and in person, we're seeing just this huge influx in people, you know, finally standing up for our black brothers and sisters, which is amazing.

  • 12:37:31

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Dr. Sherri Williams, assistant professor in Race, Media and Communication at American University. Sherri Williams, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:37:42

    SHERRI WILLIAMSThank you for having me.

  • 12:37:43

    NNAMDIWhat role has social media played during this movement?

  • 12:37:47

    WILLIAMSI think it's played a really important and significant role, because a lot of what I've seen is an extension of what has already been happening, especially in terms of what we saw in Ferguson, which is, you know, protesters, advocates calling for the arrest of police, but also organizing actions, letting people know where acts of resistance will take place, instructing people how to resist white supremacy, educating and informing people about the issues and really explaining other related racial social justice issues, how to care for one another.

  • 12:38:28

    WILLIAMSAnd really, one thing that I think is really important that I'm seeing a lot of, is while folks are out resisting police brutality, they are also documenting the police brutality that they're experiencing. And also, I think it's really important that these activists are telling their own story of the uprising, using their own words, images and visuals without the traditional mainstream media framing. So, there's a lot happening on social media that I think is beneficial, not only for the activists and advocates, but also for the public at large.

  • 12:39:06

    NNAMDIJacqueline LeBayne, tell us about Freedom Fighters. Who are they, and what are your goals?

  • 12:39:11

    LEBAYNEOf course. So, Freedom Fighters DC is a newly formed, nonprofit organization focused in the D.C. area. Our board is 90 percent black women. We just want to make that very clear. We are run, majority, by black women. And Freedom Fighters DC seeks liberation for all black people through the eradication of fascism, white supremacy and racism. We're a collective of like-minded people based in the D.C. area committed to these sentiments, and we were formed in response to the killings of George Floyd and Brionna Taylor.

  • 12:39:43

    LEBAYNEOur main focus is defunding the police and redistributing these funds back into our communities and programs such as mental health, education and food and housing insecurities, because so many studies show that if you put funding and more funding into these programs, the crime rates are going to plummet. We wouldn't even need the police presence we have now if we adequately funded our communities.

  • 12:40:04

    LEBAYNEWe're also demanding that no new jails be built in D.C. We are demanding the immediate abolition of the Metro Transit Police, and we are demanding investment by D.C. government into non-police, non-punitive violence prevention services and mental health care. So, those are our main focuses.

  • 12:40:23

    NNAMDIJacqueline LeBayne, what role did social media play in Freedom Fighters DC getting started?

  • 12:40:30

    LEBAYNEOf course. So, actually, social medial is the reason that we started and what gave us the opportunity to start. One of our founders, Philomena, she tweeted out: Is anyone wanting to get involved in D.C. protests? And I just moved to D.C. for an internship, so I liked the tweet, because I had been involved previously and I wanted to get involved here. And at first it was just going to be, like, kind of protest buddies. We just wanted to make sure that everyone had a buddy to go to protests so they weren't alone, that they were safe.

  • 12:41:01

    LEBAYNEAnd, after a time, we realized that no one was really organizing. We didn't see any action happening in D.C. So, you know, through social media, through different channels and group chats, we formed this organization. And we've just had an outpouring of support from, you know, actually all over the world. We've gotten donations from numerous different countries and states all over the country. So, social media gave us the opportunity to start this organization.

  • 12:41:31

    NNAMDISherri Williams, of course modern technology has a reach that's new. What does it mean that someone can put a message out to thousands, even millions on social media or online, immediately, today?

  • 12:41:43

    WILLIAMSI think it means that some of the concerns, issues and injustice that black people experience can no longer be so easily hidden. And it can be amplified quickly and without a lot of traditional framing and stigmatization. Because I think what we often see, when we see any issues that concern black people that show up in the media, there's a lot of traditional framing around that.

  • 12:42:12

    WILLIAMSAnd there are ways, particularly in which black victims of crime are somehow blamed for the situation that led to the circumstances of their death, or we see really what amounts to a character assassination of these folks. But when we are able to -- when activists are able to tell their stories directly, without that filtering and without these several steps that stories have to go through in mainstream media newsrooms, then we don't really see that. We see more of a free-flow of information, and we see information, not stagger.

  • 12:42:50

    WILLIAMSBecause one of the things that I think is interesting about Ahmaud Arbery's death is that it happened so long ago, but it didn't really come to light until folks started talking about it on social media. So, I think what social media affords activism, black activism in particular, is a way to be able to connect directly and amplify their messages and really filter through a lot of the traditional gatekeeping that happens through mainstream media.

  • 12:43:19

    NNAMDII want to talk a little bit more about that traditional gatekeeping in terms of how the news is presented. What are you seeing on social media, and how is it different than what we see in mainstream news?

  • 12:43:34

    WILLIAMSWell, for me, especially during the early days of these protests, so toward like the end of May and early June, probably like the first two weeks or maybe the first eight or nine days, a lot of what I was seeing on television was a lot of property damage on a loop. A lot of smashing of windows and fires and things like that. I mean, that is all I was seeing, and I'm somebody who consumes a tremendous amount of news, right. But I'm talking about broadcast news, specifically, but some of this applies to print media, also.

  • 12:44:06

    WILLIAMSSo, really, what I saw on the television was what, in communication studies, we call the protest paradigm. And the protest paradigm basically just says that whenever we see any type of dissent in the United States, it will always be covered in a way that is stigmatized and that delegitimizes what the protesters are actually asking for. And we actually don't even see a focus on the issues, but we see a focus on the physical presence and maybe if that presence causes a nuisance, like if folks are standing in the middle of a street, or if there's like a framing called, like, the riot frame when we will see, you know, focus on the so-called looting, and that kind of stuff.

  • 12:44:50

    WILLIAMSBut on social media, what I was seeing was on my other screen, my mobile phone screen, I'm seeing activists actually talk about what defunding means. When they talk about defund police, what that actually means and where they want those dollars to be reallocated. I'm seeing issues besides defunding, what it's like to actually live in a particular city like Louisville, for example, and how the police and community relations are there. So, what I saw on social media were more layered and contextual stories about the issues and not a lot of the looting and riot frame that I was seeing on television.

  • 12:45:29

    NNAMDIJacqueline LeBayne, would you agree? How different is the storyline between social media and the mass media?

  • 12:45:36

    LEBAYNENo, of course. What they were just saying is -- that was beautifully said. There is such a difference in what we see on social media and what we're seeing in the mainstream media. Personally, like, my parents have called me, and they're like -- I mean, all they see is the rioting and all they see on the news and what we see on the news is, you know, what the person who just spoke before me said, is we're seeing the rioting, we're see the looting.

  • 12:46:01

    LEBAYNEWe're not seeing the peaceful protesters who are engaging and being peaceful and the police are still being violent towards them. We're not seeing that. We're not seeing that on social media. We're seeing videos of police brutality against peaceful protesters. We're seeing so many different things that we're not seeing on the mainstream news because that doesn't draw attention. What draws attention and what gets people talking is the rioting and looting, which is only, you know, 1 percent of the protests that are going on right now.

  • 12:46:33

    LEBAYNEFreedom Fighters DC has had troubles with that before, just looking at the stories that have been written about us, and how different what we said and what was printed was. So, it's definitely a more raw image that you see on social media, a more real perception of what's going on on the ground and on these streets that you don't see in major news.

  • 12:46:57

    NNAMDIJacqueline LeBayne, we got a tweet from Bill: How can an organization such as Freedom Fighters accept tax-deductible donations when they just got started? Can you accept tax-deductible donations?

  • 12:47:11

    LEBAYNENo, no. The people -- we have made it very clear that the people who have donated to us, we are a newly found organization, so we are not available to issue tax write-offs, as of now.

  • 12:47:22

    NNAMDISherri Williams, social media and the web give pretty much anyone a megaphone. What are the pros and the cons of that?

  • 12:47:32

    WILLIAMSWell, I think one big pro is that when we think about traditional mainstream media and who has been shut out, it's definitely the people who are taking to the streets and, once again, calling for liberation and equality and equity in this country, primarily black people, right. So -- and we know that there are not very many black people working in newsrooms. We know that when -- oftentimes, when mainstream media comes to cover black communities and other communities of color, it is either in instances where there is crime, chaos or some sort of pain going on.

  • 12:48:09

    WILLIAMSSo, what social media does is it gives black people an opportunity to tell their stories, regardless of what's happening. So, I personally see the way that black activists use social media as an extension of the black press. Because, I mean, even if we think about the 1960 civil rights era, and even before 1960, like 1955 and such, it was black-owned media Jet and Ebony magazines that really told those stories and documented those stories, as well as smaller black papers across the country.

  • 12:48:44

    WILLIAMSSo, Emmett Till's photo of his bloody -- his bloated body that was captured for the world to see, that was published by black media. So, a lot of these images that we're seeing today are published by black activists on social media. So, I think it's really important for us to really understand that one of the reasons why we see black people using social media so much is because our voices are not present the way that they should be in mainstream media.

  • 12:49:13

    WILLIAMSAnd even -- just to kind of go back to how media is covering this. One term that I have heard a lot, which is particularly disturbing to me, is newscasters using the term outside agitators. And not as a quote, not quoting authorities, but using it themselves. And that's really troubling, because we know that that is the language of Bull Connor. And we know that Bull Connor was one of the biggest white supremacists in the country and one of the biggest foes and adversaries for social justice and civil rights advocates back then.

  • 12:49:45

    WILLIAMSBut even with that being said, moving on -- coming back to the current day, there are a lot of benefits for social media in that black folks can use it to tell their own stories. But at the same time, social media's also where white supremacists, misogynists and other people who are totally against freedom, justice and liberation, those ideas also thrive on social media. Because we know that, especially back in 2017, when there was the big protest at the white supremacist presence at the University of Virginia, they were coalescing and working with each other on social media channels.

  • 12:50:23

    WILLIAMSSo, social media, it does democratize an opportunity for people to share their information. But that just doesn't only mean people who are working toward freedom and justice. It also means white supremacists who want to maintain the status quo can also use those tools.

  • 12:50:41

    NNAMDIWhere does President Trump fall on that? He was among the first prominent politicians to circumvent the established media by posting on Twitter.

  • 12:50:49

    WILLIAMSYeah, I mean, I think he is actually one of the people who I'm talking about. I mean, I don't think that it is out of tune to say that he is a white supremacist. I mean, his policies and rhetoric and pretty much everything he has done has shown us that. I mean, it is the proof. And really, as we look at President Trump's Twitter account, that is not only an archive of lies, but it's also an archive of his racism and his white supremacist rhetoric and also policies. So, yeah, he is also a part of that.

  • 12:51:19

    NNAMDIHere's Pete, in northeast Washington. Pete, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:51:24

    PETEHi. I wanted to respond to the earlier question about the difference I'm seeing in mainstream media's portrayal and social media. And specifically, I wanted to talk about Mayor Bowser's putting up of the murals saying Black Lives Matter and renaming the street Black Lives Matter Plaza.

  • 12:51:43

    PETEIn mainstream media, I saw just glowing, gushing praise for, you know, an incredible brave rebuke of President Trump and, you know, everyone just ate it up. But as soon as he's on social media and listen to the people who are plugged in in the D.C. activist scene and know what's been going on around here, you know that Mayor Bowser has done almost nothing to support the Black Lives Matter movement. And that was just a really glaring difference I saw in the coverage and reality.

  • 12:52:18

    NNAMDIJacqueline LeBayne, care to respond to that?

  • 12:52:22

    LEBAYNEYes. No, I would -- I mean, I would agree being, you know, Freedom Fighters DC. We want more than a mural. We want actual policy changes. We want to see the redistribution of funds. So, from our side, it was definitely a publicity stunt, and it was glorified on the media like that was supposed to change something.

  • 12:52:43

    NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left, Sherri Williams, but digital activism has been given other names at times, including slactivism, the idea that firing off a tweet is just not enough. Do you think the movement right now is activating real change?

  • 12:52:58

    WILLIAMSYeah, I do think that it's activating real change. And I also feel like social media is something that people in the -- particularly older people don't necessarily take seriously because of ways in which young people use it. But, I mean, I think anyone will tell you, anyone who is in any type of activist space, whether it is ground roots -- or grassroots activism or even more corporate activism knows that in order for them to be effective, they're going to have to have a social media strategy. Like they have to use social media in order to circulate information and even to use it as a tool...

  • 12:53:40


  • 12:53:41 coalesce around...

  • 12:53:43

    NNAMDI...I'm afraid...

  • 12:53:43's almost like the telephone today. You cannot have...

  • 12:53:45

    NNAMDII know, I got to interrupt -- I got to interrupt, because that's all the time we have. Dr. Sherri Williams, Jacqueline LeBayne, thank you both for joining us. This segment on social media and racial activism was produced by Richard Cunningham. And our conversation with Sandy Greenberg was produced by Lauren Markoe.

  • 12:54:02

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, protests for racial equality have reignited calls for Confederate statues across the region to be removed. Some protesters have even started taking matters into their own hands, tearing down statues themselves. We'll explore the debates over the monuments and the history behind them. Plus, the past is never the past. Every headline has a history. The hosts of NPR's "Throughline" joins us to look at current events through the lens of history. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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