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Brief Published: 12 Jun 2020

Black Lives Matter: New Digital Activism Strategies

Reshidev RK for Wieden+Kennedy and 72&Sunny

The Black Lives Matter movement is reinventing digital activism by occupying opposing hashtags, hacking ad revenue streams, and dismantling biased algorithms and censorship. Technology is allowing secure communication for on-site protesters, with protective features ensuring secure and anonymous co-ordination.

  • Social Sharing Beyond Echo Chambers: Hashtags are being weaponised to reach beyond likeminded audiences. “Let’s target our posts towards the people that need to see and hear it,” urged Washington DC graphic designer Manassaline Coleman in a Virtual Protesting 101 Instagram post. She asked followers to post Black Lives Matter content using conservative hashtags like #Nra and #Bluelivesmatter to occupy spaces where conservatives “would virtually hang out”.

    Adopting this strategy, US ad agencies Wieden+Kennedy and 72andSunny created a social media movement aiming to mute racism for the day of George Floyd’s funeral. They instructed people to post purple flowers with a series of hashtags intended to target racially insensitive hashtags – including #Whitelivesmatter and #Alllivesmatter alongside #FlowersForFloyd.

    K-pop fans are also supporting anti-racism by populating right-wing hashtags with fan content – see The Brief for more.
  • Hashtag Pushback: TikTok was criticised in May for suppressing Black voices with a biased algorithm intended to “prevent bullying”, together with what it said was a technical glitch (Black-centric hashtags on the platform incorrectly showed zero views). To protest, users changed their profile pictures to a Black Power image, only liking content from Black creators, and using #ImBlack and #BlackVoicesHeard in tags and comments. TikTok responded with algorithm alterations and a $4m donation to racial injustice organisations.

  • Hacking Ad Revenue: Influencers are giving audiences unable to physically protest or financially donate inventive ways to virtually contribute. American YouTube personality Zoe Amira posted an ad-heavy video, asking BLM supporters to keep playing the video to rack up advertising revenue, which Amira would donate to racial justice organisations. Posted on May 30, the video amassed 9.3 million views until it was removed on June 10, when it was determined the video violated Google monetisation guidelines. In a statement made on Twitter, Amira announced that YouTube pledged to donate the amount that viewers would have raised via a new policy. Other YouTubers have joined in with similar videos, listed on a Support BLM playlist.
  • Tech Protects Privacy: As news surfaced that authorities are monitoring protesters via phone-tracking and facial-recognition tools, US secure messaging app Signal’s downloads tripled in early June, seeing it became a go-to communication service for protest organisers. The app, which encrypts messages without saving metadata, introduced a facial-blurring feature for users sending photos in the app on June 3.

    In early June, Brooklyn developer Francis Tseng launched Scanmap for protesters, a crowdsourced live map of police communication which expanded to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Austin. American tech developer Everest Pipkin released an open-source tool that scrubs information-tracking metadata and blurs faces to digitally protect protester identities.  

    See Safeguarding Security and Decentralised Society for more regarding concerns around misuse of personal data and ways brands are addressing consumer distrust.
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