Black Lives Matter too: from #hashtag to movement

The Black Lives Matter movement will not have escaped the notice of anyone interested in American political life. Since the movement was established in 2013 the movement has grown into a social movement that is as polarizing as it is powerful. Black Lives Matter, which started as a hashtag, is the perfect example of the power that the internet can have to bring about changes in a society.

Black Lives Matter started as a hashtag in 2013. The hashtag was set up by Black Lives Matter founders in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had shot young African American Trayvor Martin. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter rapidly took off with the black community expressing outrage over the acquittal and exploded when more shootings followed. A movement quickly solidified around it, led by the three women who set up the hashtag. Today BLM has over thirty chapters in the United States and continues to be a household name in American politics. How could a hashtag grow out into such a powerful movement? The answer is twofold: empowerment by the internet and the creation of a new type of social movement.

“How could a hashtag grow out into such a powerful movement?”

Empowered by the internet

The internet has long been considered a very anti-hegemonic tool, allowing the spread of information irrespective of who the sender is and enabling the fruition of a wide variety of discourses and ideas. New media have freed social movements from the constraints of hegemonic mass media and have given a voice to those previously unheard. Social media allowed thousands of members of the black community to share their stories of discrimination and marginalization, enabling the community to shine a light on issues often left in the dark. In this way, the internet empowered the black community to tell its own story without having to rely on anyone else.

“The internet enables the telling of new stories by groups often unheard”

This empowerment by the internet shows the way that the internet enables the telling of new stories by groups often unheard. Social media enable a new type of activism focused on bringing issues to light by trending certain hashtags or setting up viral actions, such as the #iftheyshotmedown campaign. The internet is not just a place to start up a social movement or meet others fighting the same issues: it has become a campaign tool in itself.

A new, networked social movement

When sociologist Michael Castells wrote about networked social movements, he might have envisioned something like the Black Lives Matter movement. His ‘Networked social movement’ is a social movement originating online, characterized by a clear call to action to mobilize indignation. Networked social movements use social networks to recruit new members by appealing to their indignation and mobilizing it into action. They are leaderless, rarely programmatic and spontaneous.

“Networked social movements use social networks to recruit new members”

While social networks might sound like the dream for any social movement, there is a catch to using social network activism. Networked social movements are particularly vulnerable to ‘slacktivism’. Online activists can mobilize their outrage and take action by sending angry tweets or blogging furiously, but there is no risk involved, no dedication and ultimately little change is caused by these activists. This is perhaps one of the reasons why most hashtags on Twitter fizzle out rather quickly without every truly making a change.

The Black Lives Matter movement seems to have been able to overcome the curse of slacktivism. One of the reasons for this is that the BLM movement is only partially a networked social movement. Unlike the Networked social movements described by Castells, BLM is not leaderless and has a rather clear programme with scheduled marches, sit-ins and rally’s. The programmatic schedule and clear leadership of the BLM movement allows it to be strong and unified, while a strong online presence and network-based activism allow the movement to profit from the power of the internet. It is this hybrid between spontaneity and planning and between online and offline protests that allows BLM to dominate the political landscape the way it has.

With net neutrality being threatened and Donald Trump in office, the future of the Black Lives Matter movement is uncertain. It is clear, however, that the movement has set a precedent for a social movement in the new age and shows the empowering influence that the internet can have. For better or for worse.

This essay is an abridged version of a paper that was published on Diggit Magazine. You can read the full paper here. This abridged version of the paper mainly touches upon the empowering influence of the internet on social movements and the new type of social movements that the internet can foster.


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