How can the design of a social movement shape the future of communications? If social activists and policymakers use tools of communications to design the futures they want to see, then surely the design of a movement can affect the way in which we communicate in the future?
In May 2020, America erupted in a series of protests, marches, and boycotts against racially motivated violence and incidents of police brutality against African Americans and communities of color. The protests were sparked by the nine-minute long video of the death of an African American man, George Floyd, under the knee of a white police officer. This disturbing video footage, widely circulated online on various social media platforms and augmented by mainstream media, inspired a wave of demonstrations and rallies throughout the United States that spread like wildfire across national borders.
Social movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), are powerful, coordinated social forces that challenge authority, broadcast social grievances, and ultimately reshape our world through their engagement with the communicative technology and media available to it at the time.
For example, in 2013, the BLM movement started when just three social activists, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, responded to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who murdered African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida, with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on the social media platform, Facebook. Since then, BLM has morphed into the umbrella platform upon which numerous other movements and millions of individuals pushing for societal and economic reform, have launched.
How do these protests differ from what came before? History allows us to learn from those who have walked before us and apply these lessons forward. Historically, disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups faced systemic barriers in their access and ability to disperse information, as well as in their means to take action and advocate for their own needs by directly speaking out on the issues affecting their lives. From the civil rights movement of the 1960’s to the Occupy movement in 2011, in which “camps” or “occupations” of protesters appeared in public spaces in cities around the world to demand change—this time around, things feel different.
With BLM, we’ve seen more complementary dimensions of online and physical activism as Internet-savvy young people communicate and mobilize in a way that feels faster than real time, essentially redefining the scope of what activism, and how it is communicated, looks like. With 24-hour access to news, and information available almost anywhere in the world, it feels like we’re operating at a faster speed and wider scope that pre-digital approaches.
In America, the BLM movement drew from social media-based approaches to enable marginalized people of color themselves to advocate for their own communication needs. It’s a network that has changed how we all participate, with new individual actors leveraging communicative capacities through the use of digital media to open up new modes of influence. These new and informal forms of democratic participation use communication technologies not only to disseminate political messages but to organize and activate their communities in order to foster connected action.
Yet, such trends also raise challenges for activists competing in an increasingly content-saturated environment, begging the question of how the pervasiveness of this new networked media environment appearing in our homes, at our workplaces, and in public spaces 24-hours, a day will influence the communicative power of social movements in the future and provide the infrastructure to foster improved socio-economic relations.