Tag five people to share a baby photo! Tag five people to draw a carrot! Tag 10 people to do as many toilet roll kick ups as they can! Tag 10 people to share the #blacklivesmatter hashtag! Don’t break the chain!
Global lockdown brought with it a slew of social media challenges, designed to serve as a means of inane distraction from the boredom and solitude of isolation, and helping participants feel relevant and connected. In short, these challenges are, for the most part, self-serving. This is not a bad thing; these little trends, taking up a few minutes of a monotonous day and forming a small link with those we’re currently removed from, can be indispensable, considering the toll the collateral impact of COVID-19 has had on mental wellbeing.
And so, when people jumped on these trends, social media helped to grant a short reprieve from the fact that we were, for the most part, at home, sitting on our sofas and doing nothing. However, when people so easily translated the style of challenges used to draw carrots into the language of social justice, things went wrong. The merging of frivolous challenges with serious issues during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement was not just short-sighted, it was insulting, trivialising the matters at hand by putting the online self before real consideration of the issue. In brief, the oppression of human lives is not a trend, and should not be treated as such.
As a mixed race person, I was quite horrified to see white friends (please do correct me if anyone has seen black participation in this) posting a chain of account names, all of whom simply saw that they were tagged, pressed a button to share it to their own story, and added the hashtag #blacklivesmatter (well, many people actually forgot this latter part). If one were to ignore their tag, they would be ‘breaking the chain’. To think that the BLM movement, for some, was interacted with in the same manner as so many asinine social media trends, hints at quite an upsetting level of detachment, with performative action allowing one to feel involved, while avoiding any genuine examination of the controversy at hand.
This was soon followed by #blackouttuesday, in which people posted black squares in an attempt to create a day devoid of selfies or food pics, compelling the acknowledgement of the movement by all those on social media. This was, by all intents and purposes, meant to do good, and it was certainly nice to see so much mass participation, but, again, the trend circumvented its true purpose. The amount of people tagging their squares #blacklivesmatter despite urges not to do so clogged the search for that hashtag, which had previously been used by organisers to share details of protest dates and locations, police presences, and general information needed to keep people safe and informed (this – the 2nd June – was at the height of police and military action against protests in the U.S.). This begged a question: if someone was able to pick up their phone and share a black square, could they not hold onto their phone for just a little bit longer, and instead share some information that they had read and found useful; or sign and share a protest; or choose and donate to a charity or fund?
However, to have jumped on an unhelpful trend like this in the past, does not make a person racist or wilfully ignorant; the beauty of social media during this movement is its emphasis on self-assessment, allowing us to recognise that prior usage has been performative or lacking, and to rectify that in the future. It is quite mollifying that BLM has, for the most part, risen above ‘cancel culture’, and instead has given the everyday person opportunities for reflection and development, which is far more forgiving and unifying. No one is perfect in their anti-racism or their use of social media, and this movement is granting us all the scope to appraise our own actions in order to better help those around us. This is, I think, where we have seen the best of social media. An emphasis on learning has been helpful for all, with plenty of accounts rising to create educational material, all of which can be easily consumed and shared. This is vital: whether it’s facts about Britain’s oft-underplayed links with slavery; the reality of systemic racism; or even humble lessons on how to admit one’s own flaws, be open to being wrong, and apologise and move forwards. The impact of this has brought a rawness and openness to an often-artificial platform, with people sharing personal experiences, their current journeys, and their future aims to a communicative and responsive audience.
Now, many social media feeds are returning back to normal. This seems inevitable, but it shouldn’t be, and as long as social injustice is prevalent, we all have a duty to make sure that the environment of learning, listening, and advancing remains a reality in our online worlds. If that one influencer shared a black square and then immediately went back to marketing their jewellery, consider following new, informative accounts. If everything you’ve been reading or sharing comes from solely white Instagrammers, consider filling your feed with more black and minority voices. If you personally have felt your interest in the movement wane, remember that it is not over, and actively search out things to learn and do every day; don’t fall silent. In this era of online communication, in which everyone is encouraged to join the conversation, it is easy to say or do something wrong. However, it is also easy to accept that, apologise, and do better in the future. Being anti-racist requires active participation, and so the only real way to fall short is to not speak out at all.