How black squares in social media are defeating their own purpose

The dangers of good intent without foresight

Nobody truly seems to know where it started, although Brittany Packnett Cunningham has a good theory, but the black squares on social media are posing a real danger to the movement they are intending to support. Posted across the world to show support for the protests against the terrorization and murder of black people by US law enforcement, these images are drowning out important voices and making it harder for people to organize.

Here’s the thing. The BlackLivesMatter hashtag is being used by demonstrators, protestors, activists and news outlets to uncover and report around events as they unfold. The way hashtags work is that people looking for news, events and help are using the hashtags to find it. And here is what they’re seeing now on the BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Instagram:

nine black squares

Black square upon black square upon black square. While a first thought may have been to use only the hashtag BlackOutTuesday, that is not what is happening. People want to show their “support” far and wide on all related hashtags, including the most well-known one. When millions upon millions of users on social media flood these hashtags they are drowning out news, stories and the real people in the midst of the struggle.

Instead of these black squares we might have seen important breaking news exposing police brutality and attacks on the press, alongside voices of reason, anguish and witness reports from black people guiding us through this turmoil. Brittany Packnett Cunningham acknowledges the outcome of the black squares as digital protest suppression:

Look, social media is a critical tool. It is a tool that educates people about white supremacy. It is a tool for people to learn  and reflect on their own anti-blackness. It is tool for people to be able to advocate on behalf of victims of police violence, racism and actually do the work that it takes. It is also an important tool for activists and organisers to stay connected, alert people about actions and alert people about the immediate support that they need, should people be jailed, need bail, etceteras. The idea that black people are going to be silent at a time when everybody needs to be hearing from us in particular is wild to me.

Yet we continue to see black squares. This is devastating in that it silences many important voices. And as Tatiana Mac pointed out, today (Tuesday June 2, 2020) is an election day in nine US states, and the most important hashtag for black voices has been all but drowned in non-content. But if you’ve made this mistake, don’t brood about it. Learn from this, delete your post, spread the message and find other ways to engage. I will let Cunningham’s words finish this post as well.

This is the last moment for black people in particular to be silent. If you want to support, in this way, and you are black: put up your black posts – don’t put up your black posts, but definitely do not stop talking. Our voices are the ones that need to be raised to the highest levels.

If you are not black then I urge you to follow the hashtag AmplifyMelanatedVoices. There are directions that I’ll put on my next post. Because what those two women have asked non-black people to do is to stop posting their regular content for a week and only post and tag things by black creators, black leaders, black activists and black thinkers. If you do that you are actually helping to RAISE the voices of black people instead of completely squashing the conversation.

If we all get on our Instagram and everything is black, we’re not talking about the things that matter.

And if you do decide to put up a black picture as a post, do not use the hashtag BlackLivesMatter because what it does is when you click on the hashtag everything in there is black. So suddenly all of the content, all of the art, all of the education, all of the announcements of protests and events, all of those are suddenly buried. Which again makes it feel like somebody is doing this on purpose.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham

 

Update: Yes, it does appear as the whole campaign was started by a fake account. See image for explanation, and click through for the Instagram post.

Per Axbom

Per Axbom

@axbom

Per Axbom is a Swedish communication theorist born in Liberia. For two decades he has educated digital professionals and helped organizations with digital usability and accessibility. Per makes tech safe and compassionate through reflective reasoning, human-considerate design, coaching and teaching. You can hear his voice on UX Podcast.

Digital compassion book cover Per's recent handbook on managing ethics in tech, Digital compassion, is available to order from Amazon in Kindle format. Send an e-mail to Per for more options.

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