Opinion: Finally, A Way Forward for Social Media and Social Justice

Peter M. Gunn on Friday, Apr. 13th

Social media is becoming an increasingly valuable tool for social justice advocates, not through oft-maligned “slacktivism” campaigns such as changing one’s profile picture for a cause or through making a topic trend — but through its capability to help shape the national discourse surrounding issues, as two recent examples from two very different spheres of the web prove.

On February 9, 2012, XXLMag.com posted a video called “Fatherly Advice from Too $hort.” Too $hort is the Bay Area hip-hop stalwart known for his sexually explicit lyrics. To say that the video’s content was controversial would be to imply that there was anyone, Too $hort included, who actually agreed with its content in the first place. The video contained an exhortation for young teenage boys to commit what falls under the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network‘s definition of sexual assault in an effort to “turn girls out.” The initial response from XXLMag and Too $hort were straight out of the PR handbook for identity-related crisis management, with a distancing statement from editor-in-chief from Vanessa Satten and a non-apology from Too $hort.

The usual narrative of these incidents consists of the offending party trying to move on as quickly as possible, and the advocacy group pushing the issue walking away with at best a firing and at worst with “I am not a racist/sexist/homophobe,” but either way the underlying issues surrounding the gaffe or video in question largely remain unaddressed. However, just two weeks after its initial posting, Too $hort called the video “a blessing in disguise” and considered himself “schooled” in an interview with allhiphop.com. His change of heart was due, in some part, to the potential of social media.

In the time between the initial apology and the interview, a group of activists, professors, and writers formed a group called the We Are The 44% Coalition and published this note on Facebook, which led to this conversation in Ebony with member dream hampton, and this appearance at a town hall meeting in Oakland three weeks later. Achieving a mindset shift of this magnitude in this short a time frame from an MC who, by his own admission, could be the poster boy for misogyny in hip-hop is a feat that many activists would probably have considered impossible.

A week later, the Kony 2012 campaign hit, its rhetoric firmly steeped in the power of social media. Naturally, then, a great deal of the criticism surrounding it would come through the same channels. Indeed, some of the most detailed and informed criticism came from Visible Children, which is a tumblr page created in response to the video. In its response video, “Kony 2012: Part II – Beyond Famous,” Invisible Children mentioned of some of that criticism, but the criticism they showed was strictly from professional media outlets. What the response video fails to acknowledge: social media,
the very same outlets that Invisible Children exhorted its followers to use for its campaign, drove the direction of much of that criticism.

One of the most widely shared and effective pieces of criticism on Kony 2012 was the article “The White Savior Industrial Complex ” by Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American novelist that ran on The Atlantic. 39 seconds into “Beyond Famous,” the filmmakers end their montage of criticism lingering on footage of CNN anchor Becky Anderson saying “there are these white Westerners sort of getting on a bandwagon, and actually, they haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about,” footage that came from a broadcast on March 9. On March 8, Teju Cole tweeted the eight tweets that got The Atlantic’s attention and led to the publication of “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” On that broadcast, the contributors make repeated references to the discussion on Twitter surrounding the campaign, a discussion that Teju Cole’s tweets had a significant impact on.

The crux of Cole’s criticism apparently resonated with Invisible Children, because in “Beyond Famous” they put a much greater emphasis on the local efforts Ugandans have been making to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army, and they redirect their focus from the actions of the U.S. military to the
actions of the African Union, in essence, to shift the narrative away from “white Westerners heroically coming in to save the Ugandan children.” Now indeed, this shift was more of a change in rhetoric than it was in policy; the campaign to arrest Joseph Kony has not substantively changed, but this
change in rhetoric is important, not the least because Invisible Children has taken it upon themselves to be the principal framers of the issue. The tone of their rhetoric will have a profound impact on how many Americans understand the nature of conflict in central Africa and Uganda.

In the case of the Too $hort video, Facebook provided a platform that allowed a group of activists to organize on the fly and to broadcast their message while still being able to fit into the news cycle. By the same token, an author’s eight tweets were able to affect the national conversation with an immediacy that traditional forms of publication never allow. Also relevant, both situations consisted of trenchant and unflinching analyses of power and privilege usually not found outside of the realm of academia. Too often, such analyses would be considered too radical for traditional media outlets. Such analyses, then, would often be ignored, and the underlying patterns that they sought to elucidate would remain hidden.

Though social media has been largely ineffective in this country in fulfilling its ascribed role in social change a la the Egyptian or Iranian Revolution, it is proving to be useful in facilitating the kinds of conversations surround issues that social justice advocates say need to happen and is able to do so in a way that can actually shape public opinion about the issue as it is developing, instead of as ex facto academic analysis, and in turn evolve the nation’s discourse. Social media is not a panacea, and it can be as much a repository for ignorance as much as it is for enlightenment, but from memes about white privilege to the formidable feminist blogosphere, social justice advocates are finding social media as a means to achieve that fleeting, nebulous word: “progress.”

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