Sarah Jackson, an assistant professor of communication studies, is an expert on how social media is being used to democratize today’s civil rights movement and fuel citizen protest throughout the world. Her teaching and research focuses on the intersection of race, politics, identity, and public communication.
How has social media affected protest movements?
There are two competing currents of thought. Using the Arab Spring as an example, one current holds that social media itself created the movement. The other suggests that a movement that deposes a dictator was decades in the making, and social media was just one tool for promulgating activism.
The latter idea is more on track. Social media plays an important role in social movements, but it’s part of a larger toolbox for activists and can’t be a substitute for traditional organizing.
Social media was critical in helping to propel the Black Lives Matter protests. But it took bodies in the street—the die-ins, the blocking traffic, activists chaining themselves to the front doors of police stations—to keep attention focused on the issue.
Social media does have a big impact on the speed at which movements are able to engage a large number of people and infiltrate the mainstream conversation. Before social media, for example, there’s a very good chance that the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott would have remained local news stories. But because people are able to take video with their cellphones and text that video to The New York Times, these stories became national in a way that they wouldn’t have in the past.
Has that forced the mainstream media to cover these events differently?
Absolutely. Social media doesn’t just push the political agenda; it pushes the mainstream media agenda, which is being forced to respond to the conversations happening in those spaces in order to stay relevant.
In terms of effectiveness, do you see any difference between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and what’s happening now?
It’s easy to say years later that the civil rights movement was effective because we got Brown v. Board of Education and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But we also know that it took many decades to reach those milestones.
The contemporary movement is 100 percent effective if we’re talking about gaining mainstream media attention and infiltrating the mainstream political conversation. But if we’re talking about passing legislation, we don’t have that measure yet, because the activists and members of the establishment have yet to agree on a solution. It’s not even clear that there are legislative solutions.
Social media enables activists to coalesce around issues more quickly, but doesn’t it also empower conservative backlash?
That’s true. But what I find interesting is that the backlash narrative often comes from institutions like the police or mainstream media—and historically, those institutions have had overwhelming power to control the conversation. Social media has enabled activists to steer the conversation without even needing to engage with that backlash narrative. That is a powerful impact.