How social media fueled a renewed outlook on activism at Emerson


Courtesy/Jilly Towson

Jilly Towson is one of hundreds of Emerson students taking to social media to promote Black Lives Matter.

Jilly Towson never questioned whether or not she should post online about the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It’s my life, so it is impossible for me not to be aware of it,” Towson, a Black junior marketing major, said in a Zoom interview from Chicago. “But just because I knew it was going on didn’t mean the rest of the world would.” 

The police killing George Floyd on May 25 propelled the Black Lives Matter movement into the mainstream media, fueling a massive social media effort that initially started in 2013 to eradicate white supremacy and police brutality. Perhaps one of the most organized and widespread instances of social media activism in the United States to date, BLM showcases the strengths of accessibility.

Towson is one of many Emerson students utilizing online platforms to provide resources for protestors, educate people about systemic racism, and showcase Black voices. This momentum is currently on the decline particularly among white Americans, as a study from Democracy Fund and UCLA Nationscape indicated that their views on racism are slowly returning to their pre-protest baseline. Questions in the study asking whether or not Black Americans face racism and if white Americans disapprove the police have shown a drop in affirmative responses.

“For me, it is almost a diary,” Towson said. “It’s a way to release and feel a bit more heard, because a lot of times Black women are kind of silenced and nobody really cares about what we have to say. But since it’s my page, you’ve got to hear what I have to say.”

From May 26—the day after George Floyd was killed—until June 7, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was used approximately 47.8 million times on Twitter, a record high, according to the Pew Research Center

Some of the most prevalent #BLM content shared on Twitter are videos of police intimidation tactics during protests, as well as Instagram posts featuring graphics or drawings filled with information to encourage more engagement. The posts are then shared on users’ platforms, usually through Instagram stories, where they are only visible for 24 hours unless highlighted on the account.

The constant stream of information online provoked Generation Z to take an initiative not only to post, but take to the streets, as 15 to 26 million people protested for the BLM movement in the U.S. If protestors were incapable of leaving the house, especially during a pandemic, they were encouraged to find alternative ways to support that include signing petitions, donating to organizations supporting BLM, and sharing as much relevant information as possible.

The impact went beyond its online reach, as police brutality cases were reopened while states and cities began to enact police reform through initiatives like banning chokeholds and ordering officers to wear body cameras. In Minneapolis, they voted to remove the police department as a charter department and instead utilize a community-based public safety model. 

While social media activism has traditionally been belittled for its performative nature, now it was a catalyst for change to be made.

On June 1, Emerson College President Lee Pelton released an open letter regarding his support for BLM and encouraging the Emerson community to take a stand. Shortly after, many campus organizations released their own statements on Instagram denouncing racism and publicly declaring their support for the movement. Others decided to take it a step further by creating their own BLM content that relates to students at Emerson.

Beneath the Surface, an Emerson Channel documentary series about students of color at a predominantly white institution, posted a list of courses offered at Emerson that highlight non-white perspectives, as well as collaborated with POWER (Protesting Oppression with Educational Reform) to post ways to be allies to campus intercultural organizations, on their Instagram @beneaththesurfacedoc. Their 17 posts in the last 12 weeks predominantly originate from the crew’s own research. 

“I can’t change the world, but I can change my community,” Gabriella Leonel, one of the executive producers, said in a Zoom interview. “Change is hard to come by, but it is easier to start with what you have access to. I have access to Beneath the Surface, my fraternity, and my community at Emerson.”

Throughout June and July, the Emerson Hip-Hop Society posted on their Instagram feed @thehiphop_society a series of albums within the hip-hop genre that focus on consciousness and activism while showcasing the experiences of Black people in the U.S. Each post included a description written and researched collectively by the organization, including where the album falls in terms of hip-hop history, what effect it had in society, and why it is still relevant today. 

Their first post highlights Gil Scott-Heron’s album “Pieces of a Man” (1971), which includes a reference to the opening track “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” The Hip-Hop society then explains how it serves as an example for how hip-hop can be political as it calls for action against consumerism.

Ademir Monteiro, president of the Hip-Hop Society, said it’s important to recognize the context of hip-hop music when appreciating the genre.

“It’s important to recognize these voices within the hip-hop genre and to recognize that hip-hop is more than just some music you put on at a party, it is also a way that real people express their struggles and pain and experiences,” Monteiro said. “I think to just listen to hip-hop but not actively listen to the stories and the culture that it comes from, you’re doing the genre a disservice and yourself a disservice because there’s a lot that you can learn from just listening.”

In order to get as many people to engage with BLM as possible, Leonel said she became strategic with her posting, considering the time of day, the amount of content she had posted already, and how popular the information was.

Towson also used this strategic element as she aligned her BLM content to her usual posts on her Instagram @jilly.t by providing information about Black-owned fashion brands and Black authors. She said that viewing the levels of engagement had its drawbacks however, as she was able to see who would only respond to posts of her and never engage with photos about BLM.

“Sometimes you’ll think someone might actually care about you as a person, but then when they kind of shut you down and don’t really want to hear or respond or have conversations with you about things that impact your everyday life, that’s frustrating,” Towson said. “I shouldn’t have to make you care, that’s not my job.”

Towson said she received direct messages from followers who disagreed with her posts, which led to constructive, open discussions that, at times, resulted in a change in her followers’ perspectives. 

Monteiro, however, saw in his hometown Facebook group that conversations online allowed anyone to say harmful things without repercussions as they hid behind their computer screens. He said that even when people would just post the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” they would be met with a myriad of hate and racist comments.

“I’ve seen some of my friends be called horrible things because they don’t want to be killed in the street and they are letting it be known and trying to spread the word,” Monteiro said. 

Monteiro said some social media activists don’t realize the effect of their posts and how triggering videos of police brutality can be for Black Americans. Oftentimes, they end up harming the same community they were initially trying to help.

I get really anxious and I find it hard to breathe and stuff like that when I find out about new videos or see pictures,” Monteiro said. “For a lot of people it really is a form of trauma that unfortunately isn’t paid that much attention to because it’s so commonplace. You shouldn’t have to see a black person die to care about black people.”

This performative aspect of the movement is further revealed through the popularity of various trends. Many believe that Instagram users posting a chain of ten names of people who support BLM or a Black square with #BlackLivesMatter tag are often giving the illusion of support.

“For people that don’t know much about it, that doesn’t send them any information,” Towson said. “It’s not really helpful. It just makes you ‘look good.’”

The trend aspect, Monteiro said, just reveals the disproportionate amount of privilege in the people who are fighting for their lives compared to those who just post temporarily to make themselves seem “woke.”

“I can’t not be an activist, because then I wouldn’t be fighting for myself,” Monteiro said. “I wouldn’t be fighting for my brother, my mom, my father, my sister, my family, my friends if I just stopped and was like this is not going to be a part of my life anymore. It innately is a part of my life whether I like that or not.”

Leonel said she believes the performative aspect of the movement is connected to image, as students are not posting with the intention of helping the movement, but making it about how other people will perceive them.

“I think at the end of the day, it’s all about letting go of your ego and recognizing that this movement is bigger than any of us,” Leonel said.

Even with engagement dwindling from some people, racial injustice remains a prevalent issue, as Black Americans are still being murdered by police officers. Protests are still erupting like in Kenosha, Wisconsin as recently as August 25 due to the police shooting and resulting current paralysis of Jacob Blake as he tried to enter his SUV.  

Monteiro said the main indicator of whether or not a post is harmful is based on the user’s self reflection by questioning your intention to post and the affects your post will have. 

“There’s definitely no excuse [to not participate] because everyone that I know either has an Instagram account, can print out posters, can sign petitions, or can have one-on-one conversations,” Towson said. “There is no excuse not to care.”