Why I don’t think the #blackouttuesdays black squares worked

I uploaded a couple of posts from black people and organisations (in the US and the UK) yesterday onto my Instagram Stories asking people to stop posting the black squares on their social media to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the protests across the country (and other parts of the world) following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police.

The black squares flooded social media yesterday in response to a movement started by two black women in the music industry for Tuesday to be a day of reflection – it asked that those in industry to pause their operations for a day – as part of their #theshowmustbepaused initiative.

The posts I shared were concerns by those who noticed that the #blacklivesmatter hashtag was filled with the black squares as opposed to vital information about what was happening with the protests on the ground, and how people can help. I removed them however after a couple of conversations with friends who had DMed me about how these signs of solidarity can happen alongside the sharing of all of this information.

Others like Lizzo also told people that if they wanted to post the black squares, then to use the #blackouttuesday hashtag instead. So, I took her lead and replaced those posts with a suggestion that if people wanted to use the black squares as their way of showing solidarity, to just avoid using the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. Nonetheless, all day, I couldn’t help but wonder if the black squares did more harm than good.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that people from across the globe are showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter. I think there’s a lot to be said about visibility and awareness, and I know from private conversations I’m having, that the events in the US are making my friends and myself question our own relationship to racism.

The discomfort I felt yesterday about the black squares were rooted in two thoughts:

Our behaviour as users

I think as social media users, we also enjoy being part of something larger than us, and that makes it easy for us to latch on to campaigns and initiatives like these, often without thinking about the implications of our actions. It’s partly to do with us as humans, but also to do with how social media platforms work – all the features they offer us encourage, or rather push us towards, this kind of behaviour. Everything that can needs to go viral. And we lap it all up. This is the affective nature of social media.

The political theorist Jodi Dean described this quite aptly in discussing affective networks.

The loops and repetitions of the acephalous circuit of drive describe the movement of the networks of communicative capitalism, the ways its flows capture subjects, intensities, and aspirations. Accompanying each repetition, each loop or reversal, is a little nugget of enjoyment.

Jodi Dean, Affective Networks

To be in a loop, of course, means that there is no break. This is when fatigue can set in, and consequently, drive through a sense of hopelessness (my friend Amelia and I wrote a piece about the networked affect related to the Bersih movement in Malaysia about this). Being stuck in a loop can also have a another effect – the repetitive images of black squares yesterday likely flattened the tension, sentiments and anger that has driven the Black Lives Matters movement to the peak of our consciousness over the past week. In this sense, the black squares served as both a dampener and a diversion.

Social media as ‘platform’

Following on from the above, I think social media platforms refusal to take responsibility (yes, yes, I know Twitter’s @jack is in favour at the moment because he is seemingly standing up to Donald Trump, but Twitter’s history suggests that it is not the noble organisation we may think it is) for the activities that occur on their platforms. Just as how they say that they are not publishers, but merely a platform through which publishers can push their content.

There’s a lot of debate about this, of course, and more learned scholars than myself as engaging in more informed discourse surrounding this issue. But I think what is clear is that this sense of being able to choose what their responsibilities are make it easy for them to – at best, take a hands-off approach to moderating content, but worst, pro-actively silence voices they disagree with (whether through censorship or being complicit by silence and refusal to act).

What I mean by this, at least with regards to the square boxes, is that the social media platforms – and I will call out Instagram as a key example of this because that’s where I saw the most squares (at one point, I counted at least 10 square boxes in a row) – could have done something about the flooding of #blacklivesmatter with those images. They could, if they wanted to, just remove black squares or at least amplify the other images from the hashtag. They could also fix their algorithms so that just because I liked one black square that it doesn’t show me millions of others (or at least 10 in a row).

Again, Jodi Dean can help us understand the effect of thinking of social media platforms as a bastion for the strengthening of democracy, as she discusses what she calls communicative capitalism.

The concept of communicative capitalism tries to capture this strange merging of democracy and capitalism. It does so by highlighting the way networked communications bring the two together

Jodi Dean, Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics

No doubt, the past decade or so have shown many examples of how the existence of social media platforms have helped citizens around the world speak out to power, injustice and oppression. But to merely accept this at face value risks taking a deterministic view of social media (as platforms), but also trusting Platforms to have our best interest at heart. The fact is, they don’t. It is not surprising that Instagram did not appear to have done anything about those black squares; it is owned by Facebook, and only days ago, its CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg chose – in my view – to stand on the wrong side of history by actively choosing to wash his hands clean of issues surrounding hate speech and race (including a threat of violence by the US President).

Without wanting to speak for them, this is what black people are marching for. They exist in a system where the institutions (actively) work against them.

By the time I went to bed last night, my timelines were filled with black squares – and not just when I was looking at the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. I know that many people who understood the nuances of the campaign were still sharing links, images, posts on what was happening on ground and how others – especially non-blacks – can help (donate, be anti-racist, etc). I saw some of them yes, and I also saw many angry post by black people upset that the images from the protest – including violence against the protestors by the authorities – that have filled the #blacklivesmatter hashtag has been drowned by black squares.

The problem is, I had to actively look for these posts amid a sea black squares (using the #blackouttuesday hashtag only) so even a lot of other information weren’t coming through and that is why I don’t think that #blackouttuesday worked.

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