'Harming the message': Subtle mistake called out in #BlackoutTuesday campaign

Pictures of blank black squares have flooded social media, with people using it to show their solidarity and raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement.

From celebrities in the US to everyday people across the world, the Blackout Tuesday hashtag has been used on Instagram more than 27.9 million times.

Instagram feeds have been dominated by the black squares as riots continue to rage across the US following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody after an officer dug his knee into his neck with Mr Floyd gasping, “I can’t breathe”.

It has sparked fierce outrage across the world over injustice, systemic racism and inequality.

However the social media trend has divided opinion, with some saying the barrage of black squares is burying important information from activists while others claim it is effectively raising awareness.

Black squares appear under the Black Lives Matter hashtag. Source: Instagram

Social media expert Jolynna Sinanan told Yahoo News Australia this campaign had been particularly more effective in raising awareness and promoting the message than a number of other trending campaigns in the past.

She said with Mr Floyd killed within a few days of the US surpassing 100,000 coronavirus deaths, the two issues spoke to a lot of inequality within society and how people suffer as a part of that.

Black Americans have been worst hit in the US during the coronavirus pandemic, with rates of hospitalisations among people of colour far greater than those of whites.

“This is why this particular campaign has resonated with so many people,” Dr Sinanan, Research Fellow in Digital Media and Ethnography at the University of Sydney, said.

“When we look at trend of social media in the past, what is also very significant is that it’s not actually an overtly political campaign.”

Why #BlackoutTuesday has been so effective

Dr Sinanan said the simplicity of posting a blank black square meant it was not as politically divisive and people could be part of the movement by expressing solidarity without having to put themselves out there too much.

“What’s important about that – we’ve seen this in Australia and the US and definitely in social media research around the world – is that in many countries where forms of systemic inequality are prominent people can’t just engage in activism,” she said.

“What I mean by that is people can’t put themselves out there without consequences as individuals, for their families, people in their lives, so for people who overt activism, that has consequences.

A poster pushed against a fence as part of a protest in Washington. Source: Getty

“To explicitly adopt a non-activist identity, a withdrawal from visible political engagement, this is why this is particularly effective.”

Dr Sinanan said as the Black Lives Matter movement sweeps across the globe, people are feeling helpless.

“They don’t feel they have the means to make a difference. This is effective because people can put themselves out there without putting themselves out there too much while still expressing concerns,” she said.

Concerns over 'counterproductive' hashtag

With many people using the Blackout Tuesday hashtag alongside the Black Lives Matter hashtag, there are concerns posts from everyday social media users are burying important messages from social justice groups.

“It has come to my attention that many allies are using #BlackLivesMatter hashtag w black image on insta,” an activist wrote on Twitter.

“We know that it’s no intent to harm but to be frank, this essentially does harm the message. We use hashtag to keep ppl updated.”

Comedian Kumail Nanjiani also urged people not to use the Black Lives Matter hashtag.

“It’s pushing down important and relevant content,” he said.

One woman shared a screenshot of the Black Lives Matter hashtag on Instagram, which showed masses of black squares shrouding activist voices.

“This is counter-productive. Please understand what you’re doing before you do it. Amplify black voices WITHOUT silencing the movement,” she said.

But Dr Sinanan said while explicit issues were getting buried behind heavier used hashtags, people who are posting and consuming the content around the hashtags will be led to the important specifics.

“The filter bubble concern definitely still exists however it’s a very big and widely reaching filter bubble,” she said.

“With this particular one, Blackout Tuesday, right now I don’t think it does more harm than good.”

Dr Sinanan said however, the social media campaign was mostly speaking to those who use social media. But she believes it is helping the conversation to spill into debates among the general public.

“What I think about this issue which is unusual, I think this one speaks as an explicit linking of the inciting event through Floyd’s death to exposing structural, systemic and entrenched racism, making connections in a less divisive way.”

She said we could understand the significance of social media campaigns when we looked at campaigns from other countries.

Read here for information on how to support the George Floyd protests from Australia.

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