Creating Technology for Social Change

Black Lives Matter Activism through Blogging, Gaming, Hashtags, and Citizen Journalism

Black Lives Matter activism

This is a liveblog from the “#BlackLivesMatter: At the Intersection of Racial Politics and Digital Activism” panel at AoIR16 on October 22, 2015 in Phoenix, AZ. Any errors here are my own.

This panel features four anti-racist, feminist scholars, showcasing how we as researchers take on the role of documenting and amplifying the work that activists are doing already online. Catherine Knight Steele talks about the creation of digital black feminisim in blogging communities. Kishonna L. Gray talks about activist gaming in service to Blacks Lives Matter. Jenny Ungbha Korn talks about themes of racialized imagery in #iftheygunnedmedown on Tumblr. And Sarah Florini talks about This Week in Blackness’s brand of citizen journalism around Ferguson.

When the Black Lives that Matter are Not Our Own: Social Justice and a Digital Black Feminism
Catherine Knight Steele

How are our women of color reimagining black feminism online? Black Lives Matter was started by three queer women of color. And its important to remember that even in studying marginalized communities, there are those that are even more marginalized.

Steele carefully frames this as “Digital Black Feminism,” building on literatures of black oral culture, alternative publics, black feminism in response to exclusion, and voice and democratic participation. Preserving black oral culture online is a key part of the cultural practice. Moreover, transferring offline black oral culture online represents efficiency of communication rather than perceived deficiencies.

Unfortunately, digital black feminism has also been excluded from traditional norms of black feminism. Steele studied the blogging community For Harriet, which functions as a kind of “digital barbershop,” an enclave that represents a particular context of culture necessary to gain entry. 

Steele sees Digital Black Feminism being expressed in three ways: form, theoretical orientation, and praxis.

Form takes on new meaning in Digital Black Feminism, and the community uses technology and media in new ways. There is a shift away from elite notions of knowledge. Bloggers are faced with the reality of dealing with capitalistic patriarchic structures while fighting against it. These are also not traditional journalistic spaces that might allow for a public confrontation of the work.

Theoretical Orientation
Agency has always been of prime importance to black feminists. And in the middle of Black Lives Matter, Beyonce released her own album online and called herself a feminist. On For Harriet, the bloggers were less concerned about her identity as a feminist than in her agency to declare herself as a feminist. This is in direct contrast with traditional black feminist bell hooks, who pushed back against the notion that Beyonce as feminist as diminishing the definition of feminism.

The right to self-identification as black represents the politics involved in owning and operating in blackness when they have the opportunity not to. This is important to individuals who find their identity and community online, where they can perform their blackness in ways they can’t do offline.

Non-gender binary spaces emerge in digital black feminist spaces. This coincides with rejection of respectability politics, of whose lives are worthy. They called out the contradiction in the movement among men in the movement who weren’t supporting the black women who were dying at the same time.

Complicated allegiances are in tension with white feminists. In particularly, there is a specific notion of religiosity in the black community that mediates your engagement with movements that might not otherwise share that religiosity.

Dialectic of self and community needs is a common theme. Bloggers are speaking and owning these contradictions between self and community. These women are understanding the role that their participation in culture is in contrast with their research and this pushes the movements forward.

bell hooks talks about this as teaching to transgress. In this case, we are talking about blogging to transgress. The praxis requires that we strive to be fully engaged in that work. All of this is moving toward a Digital Black Feminism and reframing activism.

Activist Gaming: What Might Activist Gaming Look Like?
Kishonna L. Gray

Social media is a form of signifying black racial identity that indexes black racial culture. It’s important to understand how this is expressed in different ways online. What does this look when it extends into video games as alternative form of activism? How can video games further the causes of marginalized communities?

Video game activism requires the mobilization of both users and designers. Activism is not just rooted in game development. An activist orientation in video gaming will require: Gamers for Change, Game Developers for Change, and Game Culture for Change.

#Spawn4Good (
Using Twitch, #Spawn4Me ran a live tele-a-thin style stream to crowd fund money in support of families affected by police brutality. They streamed constantly until they had hit their fundraising goals. The effort was unique mobilization of black gamers, but also received backlash from others arguing that Twitch was not a place to do this activism.

Xbox Live forums were also a place of activism for both #gamergate and Black Lives Matter among female gamers, who carve out their own communities there. The injection of Black Lives Matter discussion and organization was controversial, provoking the ire of female gamers who thought the space should be used for activism on Black Lives Matter, which felt like a rejection of women of color in gaming.

Gray asserts that gaming culture and infrastructure is an extension of systemic racist policies and practices that oppress gamers of color. She feels the whole community has a responsibility to respond to issues of racism and develop solutions to these problems. This includes game companies themselves as well as gamers and game developers. They all need to work toward a new, inclusive environment. Only by strengthening the entire ecosystem can activism transform these spaces in progressive directions.

Towards Social Justice, Against Media Bias: Creating Tumblr Content with Purpose Through #IfTheyGunnedMeDown
Jenny Ungbha Korn

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown was an activist hashtag responding to the problematic depiction of Michael Brown, launched by a tweet from C.J. Lawrence only 2 days after Brown’s murder.

Critical Race Theory posits that racism is daily and embedded in American society. And oppositional consciousness represents the mindset of oppressed peoples like people of color who see their identity in opposition to a dominant culture and fight for their authentic representation.

Korn’s study looked at all of the posts to the Tumblr She found that 98% of the images contributed were black—half men, half women. And the posts were 100% visual, including an image or images, 65% with text and 35% with only an image.

The question at the heart of contributor’s images was: What would mass media do if I died at the hands of a cop? Would they tear me down or build me up?

Seeing this as Liquid Journalism (Bruns 2010, Deuz 2006) suggests that the contributors can be involved in the production of news around these tragedies in how they choose to react to the coverage. Contributors asked, Would I be portrayed as a song brother, cousin, friend, husband… or as a criminal and menace? Are the media choosing problematic images to justify the reason why the person was killed?

Visual Themes
Themes that emerged in racialized images that media would expect to use

  • Racialized Smoking: smoking behavior by blacks is demonized versus seen as cool among whites
  • Racialized Drinking: blacks drinking expensive champagne is improper, whereas it’s marketing when drunk by whites
  • Racialized Hands: black people are perceived as showing gang signs whenever they gesture with their hands
  • Everyday Racism and Black Masculinity: black military members are upstanding citizens in uniform, but prompt the locking nearby car doors when in their civilian clothes
  • Fearful Black Masculinity: non-smiling black men are criminals you should be afraid of, and so the media finds the angriest photo to depict me
  • Media Bias and Colorism: the media favors darker skin as scarier, like in the TIME covers of O.J. Simpson
  • Black Femininity and Sexuality: black women cannot show off their bodies in anyway because it is perceived as slutty

Racialized Positivity
The project was a affirming in many ways but also played into respectability politics, as the positive images often conformed to white neoliberal standards of normal behavior. And they abetted white fragility in depictions that would comforting whites and reduce their stress about racism. Only one text contribution criticized this radicalized positivity as problematic.

In general, #iftheygunnedmedown was successful at raising consciousness about media bias, and the negative portrayal of black culture. And the images contribute to the depiction of a broad spectrum of the elements of black lives mattering, and we should be seeing them as a whole, not just good and bad.

Leveraging Digital Networks for Citizen Journalism: This Week in Blackness Reporting from Ferguson, MO
Sarah Florini

Amidst the unrest in Ferguson, CNN was reporting that everything was quiet one night while This Week in Blackness (TWiB!) livestreamed police sweeping neighborhoods and showering black residents with tear gas. This was why TWiB! was there: showing the disconnect between mass media coverage and the reality on the ground.

TWiB! took on a new role when they covered Ferguson, using a broad set of citizen journalism tools. TWiB! produces seven different podcasts on a range of topics, and they get over a million downloads a month of their main program. They function as a broadcast style media company, but also as a interactive network with an audience distributed across multiple platforms.

Because TWiB! is a product for and of digital media, they have a much closer relationship with their audience. Their social media channels are used in a everyday ways that create familiarity between the hosts and their audience. They will even respond directly to questions asked via tweet during live broadcasts.

TWiB! uses the language of broadcast: they go “on air” for livestreaming. And they did live podcasts and video dispatches from Ferguson. This new on-site reporting was a result of receiving tweets from their audience, saying they didn’t trust the mainstream media coverage of Ferguson and wanted the TWiB! team to go there and report. Their social network raised the funds to send them. And so the hosts using their broadcast style online channels as well as their personal social media profiles did on-site breaking news.

Twitter became a central place where they distributed their coverage from personal accounts on Instagram and other networks. Because of the visibility of the hosts, they connected on Twitter to a number of different networks and publics like Black Twitter, feminist, and progressive networks, as well as being followed by mainstream journalists who all allow for a very broad audience.

TWiB! was even able to intervene in mainstream news coverage by standing in opposition to it and framing their work as such—notably in the case of CNN’s silence. They were invited on spaces like Al Jazeera and MSNBC to represent their coverage.

Florini sees TWiB! as a set of tactics matched with a flexible network which is a new form of activist media strategy. She thinks this may represent an example of Michael Schudson’s “monitorial citizenship,” perhaps as “monitorial journalism” whereby these citizen journalism tools stand in opposition to mainstream journalism. In the question and answer after the panel, one participant articulated this as a tactic of witnessing the has long been a part of black culture and activism.