Black Twitter Is Redefining African-American Activism

Black Twitter is a subset of Twitter focusing on African-American culture and issues. The earliest references to Black Twitter are from 2008, when Twitter saw an influx of black millennials using the site to discuss relevant social issues. Black Twitter has been described as an online black barber or beauty shop in its informality, use of black culture references and vernacular that non-black users might not understand.  Since its emergence in 2008, Black Twitter has grown into an online community of millions of African-Americans, discussing everything from pop culture to politics. The Pew Research Center released a study on social media in 2013 and found that 27 percent of Twitter users are black, and that they use the site more frequently than the 14 percent of Twitter’s white users.

While the percentages of Twitter users seems low, the significance of Twitter in the black community cannot be denied. It provides a platform for the African-American community to share information and organize community events. Black Twitter has become a watchdog group for injustice and discrimination in America. It brought attention to the lack of African-American comedians on SNL, and raised global awareness of the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman earlier this year. In the last six months alone, Black Twitter has put a spotlight on serious issues that were largely ignored by major news outlets by utilizing creative hashtags. #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and #Hasjustinelandedyet drew media attention and started discussions between the black community and America as a whole.

Last week, The Associated Press found itself at the mercy of Black Twitter and the subject of a trending hashtag over their framing of the murder of Renisha McBride. #APHeadlines satirized news reports about minority issues to draw attention to its anger over this tweet by the AP:


McBride, 19, was shot on Theordore Wafer’s porch last November. She had just been in a car accident and was knocking on doors in the Dearborn Heights area trying to get help when Wafer shot her. Black Twitter went crazy, with many viewing the AP’s headline as victim-shaming. They felt that had the victim been white, no one would have mentioned that McBride was drunk when Wafer shot her. Soon #APHeadlines was trending as tweets like this began filling up everyone’s timelines:

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After thousands of tweets using #APHeadlines, The Associated Press revised the tweet and issued a statement saying they were reevaluating their social media procedures.

The platform has been very successful in bringing attention to the portrayal of black men in the media, particularly in light of the recent murder of Michael Brown. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown began after Brittany Gault, a micro-influencer on Black Twitter posted two pictures of herself in response to NBC posting a picture of Mike Brown looking angry and gesturing at the camera. Many people pointed out that it looked like he was flashing a gang sign, and questioned NBC’s reasoning behind posting that photo when they also had access to other photos of Mike Brown, many of which depicted him in a better light. This led to thousands of users posting two pictures of themselvesone “socially acceptable” and one controversialand asking which photo the media would use. The hashtag laid bare the bias prevalent in mainstream media coverage when stories focus on people of color.

Since the inception of #Ferguson and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, Black Twitter has become one of the few credible sources of information on the growing crisis in Ferguson, Mo. Twitter users posted photos and videos of interactions between the residents of Ferguson and the police. These photos were very telling of the tensions between police and Ferguson residents, resulting in widespread public calls for intervention by state and federal officials. By Thursday, Missouri officials were struggling to get ahold of the situation and announced that state troopers would be taking over control of the city. Just a day after the black community called, not only for President Obama to address the situation, but also for a response from Governor Jay Nixon, both leaders were scrambling to try and address the issue. On Friday, Ferguson’s Police Department issued a statement releasing the name of the police officer involved and also provided some details of the police officer’s interaction with Brown. This was the primary demand of the Ferguson community, and although it took longer to achieve their goal, Friday represented a victory for the Black community.

Despite the victories of the last week, Black Twitter is not without its faults. Critics have cited death threats issued from Twitter users to police officers in Ferguson, which was primary reason officials would not release the name of the police officer involved in Mike Brown’s shooting. The #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen campaign, created by micro influencer Mikki Kendal, faced blowback from white feminists who felt that the campaign mitigated the effect of feminism by focusing too much on race. They responded with a campaign of their own using #StopBlamingWhiteWomen and other hashtags promoting solidarity. Additionally, while it does bring attention to important issues, Black Twitter is weakened by the divide between the majority of users and black feminists. Black feminists have been unable to affect change in issues like rap culture’s treatment of women, the use of derogatory names like “thot,” and the harmful distinctions made between “light-skinned” and “dark-skinned” women.

Like any community activist group, Black Twitter still has a long way to go in achieving its goals. Sometimes their campaigns are effective and lead to an enlightened discussions between Americans of all races. Sometimes they gain steam, only to lose it during the next news cycle. Despite word limits, Twitter has provided a new platform for the African American community to discuss issues that may not receive national media attention. It has also become a place for sharing experiences, organizing community events,  evaluating issues, and criticizing public officials and celebrities. The principle goal of Black Twitter is to share information and ideas, with the hope of developing workable solutions and effecting change. It does not always achieve these goals, but its growing power and ability to organize cannot be ignored.

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