Social media has played a vital role in spreading important and accurate information about the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. In light of the Ferguson Police Department’s use of excessive force against protestors, I have concerns about the proliferation of activism through social media, or “hashtag activism.”
The slaying of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer has sparked various important discussions, but not without the Ferguson Police Department’s significant—and often unconstitutional––efforts to suppress dissent and information. In light of this, many millennials looked to Twitter for accurate information from the protesters themselves. Major news outlets often focused unfairly on the few looting and violent protestors. Meanwhile, Ferguson protestors tweeted pictures and written accounts of the police arresting journalists, using tear gas and employing excessive force.
In this capacity, Internet activism has played an imperative role in spreading information. I applaud Internet activism for its power to spread information that one might have never known otherwise. My own introduction to social justice issues was online. For many, however, this education ends here, much to the satisfaction of those hoping to quell dissent.
The countless constitutional violations by the Ferguson Police Department are a separate discussion, but this gross overreaction and excessive use of force is what I fear will result in a world where it is only acceptable to protest online. A look at President Barack Obama’s Twitter account shows several instances of hashtags being used to support a particular event or movement; recall First Lady Michelle Obama’s iconic photo of her holding a piece of paper reading “#BringBackOurGirls.” The hashtag represented a demand to return the hundreds of Nigerian girls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
Looking beyond the potential to reach millennials, I worry that hashtag activism will become a model example of “peaceful protest,” thereby portraying offline protests as more violent and thus making offline protests more dangerous. After all, if our president chooses to make an important political statement via Twitter, surely we are also making an important political statement by tweeting our support. In regards to Ferguson, Obama stated, “While I understand the passions and the anger that arise over the death of Michael Brown, giving into that anger by looting or carrying guns, and even attacking the police, only serves to raise tensions and stir chaos. It undermines rather than advancing justice.” Obama’s decision to focus on the few violent protesters and ignore the violence perpetrated by the police is telling.
There are few options left for citizens to advance justice if they cannot protest a violent and racist police force. Moreover, I am not sure that there is thing as a protest in response to injustice—even a completely peaceful one—that does not raise tensions. If we compare Internet activism—a hashtag, a shared link, or a message of support—to any protest, it is inevitable that any protest, no matter how peaceful, will be guilty of raising tensions.
I fear that this shift in perspective will cause an increase in overreactions to largely peaceful protests such as that in Ferguson. I am not concerned with laziness; I am worried about the freedom to assemble. Moreover, with increased surveillance on the part of the National Security Agency, I am worried that the freedom to assemble will be halted before protestors can gather and even attempt to enact change.
Our government will never need to call the National Guard because of thousands of tweets but if offline protesters organize online, the National Guard might be there before the protesters even arrive.