T he wave of racial unrest that swept over the University of Missouri and other campuses last fall illustrated just how much social media has influenced activism. A protest on a single college campus can go viral within minutes. Shared photos of a particularly powerful demonstration might embolden others to take similar stands. Activists don’t have to go through traditional media outlets to spread their message.
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A founding team of 10 student leaders from colleges across the country formed the collective last August. Throughout the fall, the students crafted a set of principles, attended leadership-training workshops, and got to know each other, with a planned public debut in early January. But they ended up moving ahead in November after the Missouri demonstrations escalated, says Ms. Bell.
Two of the collective’s leaders were also original members of Concerned Student 1950, the Missouri student group that spearheaded the protests on that campus. "We had to launch before we anticipated, to support them and to push the black student movement along," Ms. Bell says
The collective’s leaders immediately turned to social-media sites like Twitter and Tumblr. Some members had big followings as individuals, which helped extend their reach early on, Ms. Bell says. Hashtags allowed the collective’s leaders to encourage activists to join their conference calls and promote their first major push: a national "day of action" on November 18.
The collective hosted a Twitter chat the day before the event that allowed people to discuss racially charged incidents on their campuses. "Have you ever experienced microaggressions in your classroom from a professor or classmates?" the group tweeted. "Yes, many times," one student responded. "Absolutely affected my performance in coursework." A faculty member wrote, "Both. And still deal with it on many levels as a black professor." The day of action drew more than three dozen participating campuses and international media coverage. Students coordinated their efforts with a #StudentBlackOut hashtag.
The collective’s social-media timelines quickly filled with photos taken by activists — including a solidarity pose of students in lab coats at Thomas Jefferson University’s medical school and a long chain of silent students with tape over their mouths at the University of Cincinnati. A photo of a student demonstration in Atlanta appeared on the collective’s Tumblr feed with an inspirational message: "Tonight we shut the city down. Tonight we were heard. Tonight, regardless of the rain, we stood in solidarity with Mizzou, Yale, and campuses nationwide."
"The revolution might not be televised, but it will be tweeted!" Ms. Bell wrote on Twitter that afternoon. (Those words were a glib reference to the Gil Scott-Heron poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and a 2010 New Yorker article by the author Malcolm Gladwell, which appeared under the headline, "Why the revolution won’t be tweeted." He argued that social-media activism was characterized by a system of "weak ties," and that such a strategy "succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.")
Ms. Bell says her group’s activists could see which strategies used to pressure college administrations — marches, sit-ins, and tent encampments, to name a few — worked best.
Social media has become an important tool for campus activism "because that’s how people communicate today," says Barbara Ransby, a professor of history, African-American studies, and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a longtime activist herself. Ms. Ransby has been in contact with the collective and offered the activists support. When multiple campuses are able to coordinate protests, she says. "that’s when we really see a heightened impact."
Still, she cautions against giving more weight to social media than the outlet deserves. "It’s a technology, it’s a tactic, and it’s one part of the larger organizing going on," she says.
Ms. Ransby draws a comparison with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which in the 1960s used the black press to publicize its message. "Groups engaged in social justice and social change have always looked to alternative modes of communication and mobilization," she says.
What’s next for the Black Liberation Collective? The group now has regional chapters nationwide, and plans to add international voices to its leadership team to seek a more global presence. Its leaders will continue helping student activists carry out direct actions, draft letters to their administrations, and raise money if needed. A national conference is on its radar for the future. "A lot of students have what it takes, just not the tools and the confidence," Ms. Bell says. That’s where the collective can come in, she says, "and create a space where we imagine students can be unapologetically black at all times."
The collective’s leaders are also turning to one of their national demands: that all colleges divest their endowments from private prison companies. They’re planning to promote a day of action focused on prisons later this spring.
There isn’t a hashtag yet, but stay tuned.