Home » “A post on Facebook is not a political change”: the founder of #BlackLivesMatter talks about the limits of social media for activism

“A post on Facebook is not a political change”: the founder of #BlackLivesMatter talks about the limits of social media for activism

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Incisive, international and without a precise hierarchy, the Black Lives Matter movement has come a long way since it was first launched, little more than a hashtag, in 2013. At first it was intended to be just a reaction to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed a 17-year-old African American in February 2012 for no good reason. Then there were the equally senseless murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The Ferguson and New York demonstrations. The extension of the movement to a widespread network of dozens of local organizations, coordinated above all by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi (who later changed their name to Ayo), the three women who had given birth to the hashtag years earlier. Finally, in 2020, the brutal assassination of George Floyd, which transformed Black Lives Matter into what is perhaps the most participatory movement in US history.

A year later, speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Tometi reflects on the central role that the web has played in the development of the movement – and its limits. On the other hand, last year 26% of Americans said they had changed their minds about their political position thanks to online content and discussions: among them, many cited Black Lives Matter and the issue of police brutality as a keystone. .

“In the public sphere we constantly see symbolic gestures, but we need substantial actions to accompany them,” comments the activist. “In an era of similar popularity for social media, it’s easy to share a quick message. But the point is not just that people share the mere rhetoric: the point is real political change, the achievement of equality in the workplace, in the education system, in the health system and so on. The final result we are looking for is the assumption of responsibility ”.

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An assumption of responsibility that, in the face of recent revelations that show how huge platforms like Facebook and Instagram have allowed disinformation and dangerous speeches to circulate freely, takes on a whole other meaning. “I think Facebook, or Meta, has a long way to go to ensure that human rights advocates and marginalized and vulnerable communities have the safety and protection they deserve in any public sphere, in any space they engage in,” he said. said Tometi, who as happens to many politically active women on social media has often been targeted by waves of hatred, insults and threats. Cyberattacks against sites belonging to Black Lives Matter were already talked about in 2016.

“We have been expressing our concern for many years now, talking about the threats that I and many others have received on the platform, the difficulty we have in finding out who is behind some of these messages and in feeling safe online,” he says. “I have stopped using Facebook in a personal capacity because of these concerns. And I know I’m not the only one: many of my peers were in similar situations, they felt vulnerable on the platform. And it’s a shame, because it’s a place we all initially went to just to be ourselves, to express and connect with other people we love, share a photo, talk about our interests ”.

For users and activists who speak out online in countries where democracy is more fragile, the dangers multiply. “We are seeing how Facebook has been exploited to target human rights defenders,” recalls Tometi, referring to the huge amount of internal company documents that have been published in recent weeks. “In some parts of the world where genocide was taking place, the platform has been used to track down people from specific communities.”

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What to do then? In addition to mentioning the need for government regulation, in the United States but not only, the activist points out a painful issue for Meta: that of insufficient attention given to content and non-English-speaking communities. “We need to start thinking about those communities that are vulnerable, who may not be able to get their concerns answered because they don’t speak English. It’s not right. And the movement to which I belong struggles to have an inclusive and safe world where everyone is able to express themselves and be themselves. It worries me when a platform with enormous potential like Facebook is reduced to little more than a space where troll farms thrive, where democracy is threatened and whose functionalities are used to target vulnerable populations. “


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