Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal

Black Lives Matter Digital Activism Writing for Social Media Course

Extended essay by
Cara Marta Messina


In June 2020, I witnessed a motorcade of police officers almost run through a marching crowd of peaceful protesters in Boston. Thousands of us had just listened to several Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists speak at a public park in Boston, Massachusetts, so we were following organizers out of the park. Police scanner radios, tracked through Twitter hashtags like “#BostonProtests” and through messages on Signal, [1] warned of police planning to kettle the thousands of protestors inside the park [2]. Protestors were on high alert and jumped out of the way to avoid the motorcade. I imagined other students—maybe even students taking my summer course at the time—in the same crowds and protests as me, standing against the white supremacy that rots America’s core and permeates across the law enforcement institution (Kaba, 2020).

The mainstream resurgence of BLM came in late May 2020 as a response to the murder of George Floyd, whose execution at the hands of police was recorded, made public, and circulated across the globe. His murder, along with the murders of Breonna Taylor in March 2020 and Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020, sparked a global movement and call for abolishing the police and holding white supremacists and police departments accountable. The BLM organization was founded in 2013 by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi; organizers and activists work hard everyday to push for structural and systemic changes to combat white supremacy and protect Black lives. BLM extends far beyond just the organization. It is a rallying cry, an ethos, and an everyday practice. The BLM ethos is also woven throughout America’s colonial, global history, a history wrought with anti-Blackness. In late May 2020, the resurgence [3] of the movement on a global scale brought BLM into so many homes across the world and again demonstrated a need for global, national, local, and individual changes to combat anti-Black systems, perspectives, and actions in order to protect Black lives.

In May and June of 2020, I was teaching a Summer 1 online class titled Writing for Social Media (W4SM). When the video showing George Floyd’s execution began circulating, students taking the course were all at different stages of their lives in terms of politics and social justice; some were just beginning to learn about global systems of white supremacy, while others were already well-versed in the violence of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. I wanted to provide a space for their activism, wherever they were in their journey, and I saw my W4SM course as that space. I understood the 19 of us—myself and the students taking the course—cannot transform white supremacist systems. However, this does not make digital activist and allyship work any less important. Meredith Clark (2019) defines BLM as a “digitally based social movement, defined by its emphasis on personalization and networked individualism” (p. 520). Clark’s emphasis on “personalization and networked individualism” carries into the goals of the W4SM course. I encourage students to reflect on their own perspectives and actions, potentially transform their personal network’s perspectives, or find justice-centered communities.

In this extended essay, I share how I incorporated coalition-based learning in the W4SM course through the integration of digital activism and the role of social media in movements like BLM. [4] I showcase exemplary student work to show how students participated in BLM and modes of activism. Finally, I will reflect on performative allyship, future iterations of the course, and feminist, anti-racist pedagogy guidelines. I advocate for the importance of centering social justice, anti-racism, and digital activism in a writing course and, most importantly, how that work extends outside the classroom. 

Course context

The online W4SM course was open to students across the disciplines. Our classroom had students from all over the globe and from multiple majors, including Computer Science, Criminal Justice, English, Sociology, and Theater.  Northeastern University, the institution where I taught this course, has a low percentage of Black students. [5] This is particularly troubling in comparison with the neighborhood that houses the institution, which is a historically Black neighborhood. I am still unsure how to negotiate teaching BLM activism — both digital and non-digital — in an institution that perpetuates anti-Blackness as it continues to push Black people from their homes and neighborhoods.

I designed the course based on two major questions: how can we define systems of power embedded in the social media platforms we use every day? And how can we combat these systems, both as users and designers/creators? Virtual spaces—such as Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit—shape our experiences, knowledges, and cultures (Campos, 2017; Clark, 2019; Brock, 2020). Lived experiences, systems of power, and ideologies are embedded within the construction of these virtual spaces and the algorithms that shape them.

I designed the course to be heavily led by students’ perspectives, writings, and expertises. I integrated several coalition-based learning methods, including “center[ing] the marginalized,” “celebrate[ing] difference,” disrupt[ing] borders and boundaries,” and “listen[ing]” (Natasha Jones, 2020). I created a private subreddit for course discussions, which modeled how knowledge circulation and discourse communities are shaped on social media (Ryan Shepherd, 2020). Students created their own threads about readings with guiding questions, which other students were required to responded. We read about the intersections of race, gender, disability, and technology (Bailey, 2015; Hutchinson Campos, 2017; Poe-Alexander and Hahner, 2017; Hayes, 2017). When discussing the readings with each other, students often shared their disciplinary knowledge and made connections between their lived experiences and the online networks in which they participated. For instance, several students who self-identified as Asian talked about the Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits,” a popular group to which they belonged. Several students critiqued the lack of Southeast Asian representation and how this led to exclusions and divisions. We spent time learning from each other’s lived experiences and expertises.

We also did a “Cyberpunk” activity based on facial recognition software and surveillance. The activity was both fun—as students used makeup, clothing, hair, and other methods for trying to deter facial recognition software—and informative. This also provided us with the opportunity to reflect on real-world implications of surveillance technologies and algorithms, especially for Black people (Buolamwini, 2016; O’Neil, 2016; Noble, 2018; Gilliard & Culik, 2021). As Simone Browne (2015) argues, surveillance is ingrained in America’s anti-Black history; surveillance systems were created to track the mobility of Black people who were enslaved, and current surveillance technology is still used to identify, police, and enact violence upon Black bodies and people (Noble, 2018; Benjamin, 2019).  Students were well-prepared to critically examine their role as BLM activists and allies when a new BLM protest happened almost every day in Boston. Together, we already made the space for vulnerability, honesty, and critiquing how systems of power—especially anti-Blackness—appear in our own digital networks and communities. With this scaffolding, I assigned the students to participate in forms of digital activism, create activist artifacts, and reflect on their choices as well as how their networks responded, if they did.

The digital activism assignment

I want to first begin with the work I was doing at this time, and how this work informed my re-design of the digital activism assignment. In early June 2020, I took a step back from the class as my priorities and turned towards curating and disseminating BLM resources to my own networks. Just as my goal in the course was for students to learn how to transform their own networks’ perspectives and actions, I wanted to do the same for my networks. I posted an email on the Writing Program Administration Listserv and to my own department with a ton of BLM resources I collected from across my social media networks, including a public email from Les Hutchinson on how protestors can protect themselves and others, especially Black protestors. [6] A group of friends in the department created a Signal message group to update each other with information as we attended protests. I made mistakes, too; for instance, I tagged one of my friends in a public Tweet and white supremacists began to follow her. After a few days, I disseminated best practices for protesting and for protecting other protestors to both my students and to a larger body of students at my institution through a Facebook Group. Finally, I re-designed the third assignment of the W4SM course. The work I did in my own community helped me re-imagine the assignment, framing it through both my own experience and inviting students to do or continue their own activist work.

The third assignment, “Digital Activism Artifacts and Reflections,” [7] built upon what students already learned from the course. For this assignment, students created digital activist social media posts—composing Facebook posts, Tweets, Instagram stories, and infographics—and reflected upon their choices using the scholarship we read together. Students had the opportunity to participate in hashtag activism, a method for using hashtags on social media as a social justice organizing tool (Jackson, Bailey, & Foucault Welles, 2020). In this section, I also integrate students’ voices, Katherine Driscoll and Bianca M. Vranceanu, who consented to having excerpts of their work published and their names used.[8] I believe in always bringing in student voices when writing about pedagogy and teaching. Their perspectives demonstrate how they untangle the complexity of social media writing and activism with the help of the assignment scaffolding and course readings.

Several of the texts we read for the course, some of which I discussed in the “Course Context” section, show specific examples of digital activism and also provided students with language to reflect upon the digital activist artifacts they created. Students incorporated these articles’ definitions of digital activism or similar practices in their reflection on creating digital activist artifacts. For example, Driscoll reflects on why Bailey’s (2015) feminist research approach is important for her own activist research:

The participation [in online communities] is a key part because colonizing practices in research distort [the research] since the author does not immerse themselves and understand the community. Bailey is a digital activist in that she is a participant in the community so her research takes away from the distorted view of her community.

Driscoll argues that Bailey’s commitment to her community as an important aspect of her research; Bailey not only researches digital activist communities, but also participates in them. Therefore, she has insider knowledge, which helps to prevent the “distortion” Driscoll mentions, and can also collaborate with other community members.

Understanding community needs when researching and participating in digital activism is key, as some well-meaning digital activists and researchers may hurt the communities they are trying to advocate for. Social media plays a critical role in protest organization, safety, and information; social media, unfortunately, also plays a role in disruption, surveillance, or spreading misinformation. Because of this, I encourage students to research how to post and engage with particular hashtags and communities.

One example of disruption is when well-meaning #BlackOutTuesday posters also used the BLM hashtag. The #BlackOutTuesday hashtag was meant to be used by non-Black users to show solidarity with BLM. What wound up happening, though, was many posters used this hashtag with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, suddenly turning the BLM hashtag into a proliferation of Black boxes. As Vranceanu writes, “I do extensive research before I decide to post. Before my #BlackoutTuesday post, I learned to only use that hashtag and forgo using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag because it crowded the feed that had helpful information about protests.” The BLM hashtag is crucial, as Feminista Jones—an important activist and organizer—says because, “People should be sharing bail funds, they should be sharing the fundraisers for the families of the victims.” (Jennings, 2020). The good intentions of the #BlackOutTuesday hashtag led to the erasure of resources, including bail funds and fundraises for victims’ families. Vranceanu’s reflection recognizes that allies and solidarity posts must be conscientious of digital activists who use hashtags and digital networks to communicate.  

Students’ digital activist pieces

The students took the digital activism assignment as time to reflect on the state of the world, the BLM movement, and anti-Blackness in their own communities and networks. Some students felt more comfortable reposting and building upon digital activist artifacts already available, while others felt comfortable creating their own artifacts. In this section, I highlight Driscoll’s and Vranceanu’s digital activist artifacts and reflections.

Protest bots

Several students chose to build Twitter bots, or more specifically protest bots; Mark Sample (2014) defines protest bots as “a computer program that reveals the injustice and inequality of the world and imagines alternative” and “fan the flames of discontent.” At the time, Korean Popstar fans, or “KPop Stans” as they are affectionately referred to across the internet (Reddy, 2020), were creating bots that intercepted hateful and racist hashtags, such as #WhiteLivesMatter, by spamming these hashtags with videos or gifs of their favorite KPop artists, or “fancams.” I provided instructions for students on how to create protest bots using Ryan Cordell’s (2020) “Twitterbot Workshop” and creating a YouTube video tutorial (Messina, 2020). Just as #BlackOutTuesday disrupted the important resources and information being disseminated across the BLM hashtag, so can disruption be used for justice.

Driscoll chose to create a protest bot as this form of protesting also engaged her disciplinary background, Computer Science. In her reflection, she provides and describes her back-end code as well as the output, which are the Twitter bot posts (Figure 1). She writes, “The purpose of disrupting [#whitelivesmatter and #alllivesmatter] content is because these hashtags spread hate and racist agendas on Twitter that aim to destroy the Black Lives Matter movement online.”

Figure 1. A screenshot of a protest bot Tweet created by Katherine Driscoll. The text of the Tweet reads “Do you really believe #sendinthetroops? But what about Justice for George Floyd?” The image attached to the Tweet is of three KPop stars posing on stage, an example of a “fancam.”

The notion of disruption is of particular importance to digital activism and protest, as Hayes (2017) also demonstrates when images, videos, and stories of police brutality flooded, and therefore disrupted, the MyNYPD hashtag, which was originally meant to celebrate the New York Police Department. Protest bots are, of course, all about how the bot creator uses them, as bots can also lead to the spread of misinformation and impact an election, as they did with the 2016 election (Guilbeault & Woolley, 2016). Because of bot’s potential harm, scaffolding a feminist praxis and digital protest framework is crucial for students to create their own justice-centered protest bots. 

Instagram infographics

Another form of social media composing is Instagram infographics, or infographics specifically created to be disseminated across Instagram, specifically through Instagram stories.  Accounts like @antiracismdaily are dedicated to crafting appealing, informative Instagram posts that can easily be shared on individual’s stories for pedagogical and activist purposes. 

Figure 2. This is a screenshot of Vranceanu’s story with the Black Lives Matter infographic she created. The infographic is titled “Black Lives Matter: Where Do I donate?” and uses a yellow and black color scheme. The text underneath shows three different organizations to donate to: The Massachusetts Bail Fund, Black Lives Matter Boston, and the Loveland Foundation. The text at the bottom reads “Educate & Donate.”

Vranceanu created two infographics on where to donate and what petitions to sign in order to help BLM protestors and combat systemic racist and police brutality; Figure 2 shows one infographic. In her reflection, she explains her goal was to provide specific petitions to sign and organizations to donate. She writes, “Something I struggled with was seeing an influx of stories posted on Instagram, but the posts just said ‘donate’, giving no information about the organization. So, I wanted to address the questions, ‘where do I donate?’ and ‘what is the mission of the organization?’. I wanted to post an Instagram story, because this is what I saw most of my followers doing, so I thought I should follow that trend (and that was already where I was doing my digital activism).” For Vranceanu, she recognized the “trend” of Instagram stories and what was missing in some of her networks’ posts. Her digital activism both informs her audience and also demonstrates better composing and research for other social media creators in her network to integrate into their own digital activism.

Reflection

While I am for the most part happy with how the course was structured, I wish I took more time to focus on notions of performative allyship and implementing anti-racist actions into our everyday lives outside of social media activities. Modeling coalition-based learning provides a space for more honest dialogues. However, just having students write, reflect, and create digital activist texts is not enough. There needs to be direct links between their disciplines, everyday practices, and actions they can take to challenge white supremacy. This is something I wish I emphasized more; while students made connections about white supremacy and their own networks on their own, I wish I had pushed them to think about steps they could take in the future, months and years from now, to continue combating white supremacy and anti-Blackness in their disciplines and networks.  We are seeing the effects now of performative allyship and activism: the anti-racist and BLM statements written by companies that fall at the way-side as company policies continue perpetuating anti-Blackness; departments promising to commit to anti-racism while tokenizing the few Black faculty members; the overall silence on social media, again, unless you and your network is actively seeking BLM content. In future courses, I also hope to more deeply incorporate scholars studying Black cultural content creators (Wanzo, 2015), Black joy (Brock, 2020), and the neoliberal commodification of Black culture through digital Blackface and other means (Leong, 2021; Sobande, 2021).   As teacher-scholar-activists—we—invite our students to learn how systems of power and oppression are embedded in every facet of our lives, as well as what we can do to resist or reimagine these systems. As Natasha Jones and Miriam F. Williams (2020) argue, “Dismantling white supremacy requires your work.” This work manifests in curriculum design, classroom policies, administration, and community work. While no course is perfect, especially since we are often building and teaching these courses in institutions that perpetuate colonialism and white supremacy, I hope to provide a few suggestions based on anti-racist and feminist pedagogies to practice an ethics of care: 

By modeling coalition-learning and applying a critical digital pedagogy perspective—which asks students to both engage with digital literacies and understand how these literacies are intertwined with politics, social, and cultural systems of power—we can continue fostering student activism and fight for Black lives, justice, and joy. So how might your course make a difference?

Endnotes

[1] Signal is an encrypted messaging application, which improves security and protects your privacy much better than non-encrypted applications like iMessage or Facebook. return

[2] Kettling is a tactic used by police to crowd protesters into small, confined spaces, causing purposeful confusion and fear. return

[3] I use the term “mainstream resurgence” to emphasize that Black lives always matter and BLM movements and ethos has always existed as long as anti-Blackness has existed. In the context of May and June 2020, the movement and ethos were much more prevalent in mainstream media and there was a rise in both in-person and social media action. return

[4] The W4SM syllabus is available at https://caramartamessina.com/pedagogy/syllabus/writing-for-social-media-syllabus.pdf. return

[5] According to Northeastern University’s “Facts and Figures 2019” enrollment, approximately 4.69% of 20,400 students enrolled are Black or African American. return

[6] Les Hutchinson shared this email publicly at https://docs.google.com/document/d/18HVfiaCtLM_BXk0D7a9_umCS0lhTpk-RTXWYNuaN0Z4/edit. return

[7] The “Digital Activism Artifacts and Reflection” assignment designed for W4SM course is available at https://caramartamessina.com/pedagogy/syllabus/writing-for-social-media-syllabus.pdf. return

[8] The Institutional Review Board (IRB) Human Subject Research Protection Director at my institution said IRB approval was unnecessary, as I was not publishing on research, but rather reflecting on the course. return

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Author Bio

Cara Marta Messina (she/her/hers) will be starting a position as Assistant Professor of English in Professional Writing at Jacksonville State University in Fall 2021. She recently defended her entirely digital dissertation website, The Critical Fan Toolkit, and received her PhD in English from Northeastern University. In 2019, she received the Kairos Graduate Student Teaching Award for her experience with critical digital pedagogy curriculum development. Her research interests include critical fan studies, feminist digital humanities, and digital publishing/storytelling; her work has appeared in Journal of Writing Analytics, XChanges, Composition Studies, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and edited collections.

 

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