Perhaps the best recent example of a well-meaning social media campaign gone south is Blackout Tuesday.
On June 2, social media users posted black squares on their accounts en masse, often adding hashtags such as #theshowmustbepaused, #blackouttuesday, #blacklivesmatter and #blm, to show outrage over the killing of George Floyd and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. There was quite a bit of pressure from participants for businesses, musicians, actors and friends to post a square ― to not do so was to cement complicity with racism.
But like a game of telephone, the campaign ultimately strayed from what its creators intended once thousands of social media users hopped on the bandwagon. It took on a life of its own. At best, it became a chance for otherwise indifferent individuals to participate in performative activism for a pat on the back. At worst, it encouraged silence and cut communication when what’s needed more than ever is for people to speak up.
With heightened awareness surrounding social issues and a growing desire to create positive change, many more viral social media campaigns will likely emerge. To ensure you help drive progress, not stifle it, here are four questions you should ask yourself before joining in.
1. Who started the trend?
One of the first steps you should take before participating in a campaign is researching its origin. By understanding who started it, you can gain better insight into the intent and purpose.
Blackout Tuesday didn’t actually start out with that name. The campaign was originally created for Instagram and Twitter by two Black women in the music industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, under the name “The Show Must Be Paused.”
“The music industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry that has profited predominantly from Black art,” they wrote on the campaign’s website. “Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people accountable.”
The mission statement also noted that it is not a 24-hour initiative and that participants should follow a plan of action that includes donating to funds for the families of victims, signing petitions, donating to bail funds and reading up on anti-racism resources. Above all, they encouraged those affected by recent events to take a moment for mental health and self-care.
No mention was made of posting black squares on social media or using any hashtags other than #theshowmustbepaused. Even so, the initiative soon morphed into a music industry “Blackout Tuesday,” and then celebrities, businesses and individuals outside the music industry hopped on. Some simply posted black squares, while others added that they were taking a break from their usual postings to highlight Black voices.
It’s clear that most people who jumped on this trend had no idea who its creators were or why they started it. By researching how it began, many of those who participated could have done so in a more direct and meaningful way.
2. What is the goal and who does it benefit?
Blackout Tuesday was an example of a social media movement that had good intentions. However, it’s important to think critically about how the ultimate form of such movements actually affects the communities they are trying to support.
“While I appreciated BlackoutTuesday, my issue with it is that there was not a clear meaning behind the aims of the hashtag,” said Angel Mills, founder of Angel Mills Brand Strategy. For some, the black square meant opposing inequity by stopping their feeds to feature Black voices. For others, it was direct support for #BlackLivesMatter. Still others posted it because they felt like they should.
“This time is not about ‘blacking out’ and being silent as much as it is about amplifying the voices and perspectives of black people.”
“When you really dive into the dialogue happening on social media around racism and the death of George Floyd specifically, it quickly becomes clear that there are many competing agendas,” Mills said. For example, she noted that the #alllivesmatter hashtag exists to essentially erase the very people who are most impacted by racism. That makes it more important than ever to keep the conversation going. “This time is not about ‘blacking out’ and being silent as much as it is about amplifying the voices and perspectives of Black people.”
3. How are you adding value?
Though it strayed from its original intent, Blackout Tuesday presented an opportunity for people to take a stand against racism, share important resources and show solidarity. “While the original intention of #blackouttuesday shifted from the music industry’s call to pause work and to reflect on white exploitation against black artists, other people utilized it to show solidarity in a unique way,” said Talissa Beall, social media manager at Dallas-based public relations firm Idea Grove.
Others, however, didn’t go beyond posting the square and maybe a few hashtags. In fact, using some of those hashtags caused more harm than good (even though the intention may have been honorable) by clogging hashtag channels that organizers and activists use to share information.
“What was unfortunate was people were also partnering #blackouttuesday with #blacklivesmatter or #blm, which caused important information to be muted,” Beall said.
Once the trend was in full swing, activists alerted posters to stop using hashtags associated with Black Lives Matter. Those who had already posted their Blackout Tuesday squares were asked to delete them and repost without those hashtags.
“Hashtags are just the start, you don’t get a gold star for posting.”
“The other troubling issue with the hashtag is that everyone was utilizing #blackouttuesday to be quiet and give space to the black community or to simply listen, when action and conversation is what’s needed,” Beall said. Rather than taking a moment to pause and reflect, Beall said, it would have been better to decry the injustices that are occurring.
4. Do you practice what you’re preaching?
Participating in a social media trend to show support is nice, but many people equate their actions on the platforms to a true contribution to the cause. “It’s one thing to denounce and stand in solidarity, but it’s another thing entirely to actively speak up against injustice, participate in protests, provide financial contributions, vocalize concerns to government officials, vote and make efforts to educate yourself so you can instigate change,” Beall said. “Hashtags are just the start; you don’t get a gold star for posting.”
Before jumping on a social trend, consider whether you’re doing so simply because everyone else is. People can see through these types of shallow contributions; if you’re doing the work in real life, there’s no need to worry about your Instagram feed.
And if you aren’t prepared to take those steps, Beall said, you should seriously reconsider participating.