look over your shoulder

Why some Black Lives Matter activists are scared off social media

Shutterstock, FUSION

When Black Lives Matter started in 2012, it harnessed social media to push the movement for black lives into mainstream conversation. Today, many activists still rely heavily on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to organize protests, connect with like-minded people, and amplify underrepresented voices.

But a new revelation is causing them to second-guess how they use social media.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced on Tuesday that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram gave social media-surveillance tool Geofeedia access to user information that helped authorities monitor and target activists of color. Although the sites decided to halt Geofeedia’s access to their data, activists interviewed by Fusion are still dismayed by the news.

For some community organizers, distrust of social media has been building for some time. Cherno Biko, a black trans-rights activist, says she hasn’t posted on Facebook in months. The tipping point came this summer after the shooting death of Korryn Gaines, a black woman whose livestream of her standoff with Baltimore police officers was removed by Facebook.

“That was a shocking wake-up call for me,” Biko told me, “and to see such a lack of support for Korryn Gaines.”

This incident, combined with the Geofeedia news, caused Biko to use her social media accounts less often and to set them to private.

Other activists weren’t surprised by the ACLU’s findings.

“I’m under the assumption that the work I do in the Muslim-American community and in the police-accountability movement means that I’m already being monitored by the government,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“That was a shocking wake-up call for me.”

- Cherno Biko, black trans-rights activist

Bree Newsome, an activist and filmmaker who famously climbed the flagpole on South Carolina state house grounds and removed the Confederate flag in 2015, echoes Walid’s views. “I find this disturbing, but not surprising,” she told me.

Newsome added that she has no doubt that social media surveillance is connected to race.

“Mass media platforms are overwhelmingly owned and controlled by white men, while the users of social media platforms are disproportionately young people of color,” she said. “So the use of social media as a way to monitor activists working to end police brutality is absolutely part of the police repression that is so ubiquitous in the United States now.”

Still, Newsome emphasizes the important role that social media plays in people’s lives, saying it gives them “an opportunity to speak out and steer the national news narrative.”

Tuesday’s revelation will only worsen the already fraught relationship between police and communities of color, according to teacher and activist Zellie Imani.

“Social media are powerful tools. Yet, as the ACLU report shows, they aren’t only powerful tools for activists and organizers, but various law enforcement monitoring us,” he said. “These actions … intimidate and silence an already marginalized and alienated group.”

But, as Walid points out, social media surveillance isn’t just an issue that impact communities of color.

“All Americans, but especially activists—be they progressive or conservative—should be concerned about the government collecting data on social media platforms,” he said.