How Technology Strengthens Social Justice Movements
The relationship between technology and social justice is not new—large social movements have always been limited (or strengthened) by the technology available to them.
The civil rights activists of the 1960s had to rely on telephone switchboards and leafletting to get the word out. Then they discovered the power of television.
“We will no longer let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of the television.”
Those were the words of MLK Jr. days after millions of Americans watched news footage of police brutalizing voting rights protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Back then the evening news helped shine a light on police brutality against Blacks and the horrors of the Vietnam War. Still, media producers had most of the power. They chose how film was edited to tell the story they wanted people to see.
Modern-Day Technologies Are Changing the Game for Activists
Today, anyone with a smartphone can report what’s happening on the ground in real time. And what people are capturing is horrifying. A callous cop with a history of complaints snuffing the life out of George Floyd. An elderly man violently shoved to the ground by a cop in riot gear. Moms teargassed and protestors snatched off the streets by secret police.
Smartphones are helping activists and everyday citizens document abuses that might otherwise go unreported. Let’s unpack some of the other technologies they’re using to create a better world.
From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, activists today don’t need institutions to the extent they once did. With social media and smartphones, they can summon protestors to the streets—and coordinate their movements—in real time.
If you want to get the word out far and wide, you use Twitter. If you want to rapidly mobilize a group without advertising it to the world, you use WhatsApp, SMS, or private Facebook groups.
Instagram is becoming a hotspot for social justice activism. Even the dance app TikTok is being harnessed for activism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. TikTok teens reportedly pranked Trump’s Tulsa rally by registering for the event en masse with no intention of showing up. Meanwhile, Snapchat users have cleverly figured out how to use the app to reach their Congressional reps.
The list goes on.
But social media isn’t without its downsides. Harassment, threats, and abuse are intractable part of the social media landscape, and it takes its toll (word to the wise: Don’t read the comments on YouTube).
Yet, for all its flaws, there’s never been anything like social media for scaling up movements. Politicians at every level—from city council members to state congressional reps—ignore social media activists at their own peril.
Digital mapping is a powerful tool for visually presenting loads of data or complex information. Take the Southern Poverty Law Center’s interactive Hate Map, which displays documented hate groups across the U.S. You can filter by state or by ideology (e.g., anti-Muslim, anti-LGBTQ, Ku Klux Klan, etc.).
The Native Land map lets you discover the indigenous history of the land you occupy, while the Refugee Project map displays migration information about the tens of millions of people who have fled their home countries because of war, persecution, or violence. Count Love tracks protests across the U.S. on issues ranging from civil rights to immigration to healthcare.
Odds are, if there’s an issue, there’s a digital map for it.
Digital get out the vote campaigns
Get out the vote (GOTV) campaigns have historically been a huge part of getting people to the polls. Activists today are finding creative ways of using digital technology to get people to the voting booth—like the two British women who commissioned the creation of a chatbot to get people on Tinder to vote.
Or the VoteWithMe app, which shows you the voting history of your contacts and whether they live in a “flippable” state. The app lets you send your friends and family members a text reminder to vote, which research has shown is an effective way to boost voter turnout.
Virtual meetings and training sessions on Zoom and other apps have become commonplace, especially in the age of coronavirus. The Sunrise Movement has been using Zoom to train hundreds of phonebankers who, collectively, have made thousands of calls urging voters to cast their ballot for progressive political candidates.
Remote-controlled drones are a cost-effective way to document what’s happening on the ground. But this technology is a double-edged sword.
Conservation groups and activists around the world have used drones to surveil animal poachers, deliver medications to people who can’t access legal abortion, and document authorities illegally attacking water protectors at Standing Rock.
But oppressive regimes are also using police drones to surveil citizens—including the U.S. Police departments across the country are already using drones to track people’s movements and document participation in protests and rallies.
It’s not clear where drone technology is going or how it will be used, which is why citizens must be hyper-vigilant in demanding the government protect their civil liberties.
Crowdfunding has become a common way to pay for otherwise unaffordable medical expenses (which says a lot about the state of America’s healthcare system). An astonishing one-third of all donations made through GoFundMe—the world’s largest crowdfunding site—are for medical care.
But crowdfunding has also been a game changer for social justice activists. The National Bail Out Collective frees Black mothers who can’t afford bail so they can spend Mother’s Day at home with their families. The FreeHer campaign not only raised funds to help Indigenous women in Western Australia imprisoned for the inability to pay fines, it helped spur legislation to end that kind of imprisonment altogether.
Individuals and organizations are also using crowdfunding sites to generate bail money and legal aid for those protesting police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
This ain’t your grandma’s carousel slide projector. Today’s powerful-high resolution projectors are lighting up buildings like never before. Activists are using them to symbolically shine a light on what’s wrong—and highlight what’s right.
In 2012, Egyptian activists projected images of military repression on prominent buildings.
In 2017, an artist used a projector to protest Trump’s racist rhetoric. Messages, including “#RESIST” and “We Are All Responsible to Stand Up and End White Supremacy,” were cast in bright blue across the front of Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
And recently, activists projected “BLM” onto the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia along with an image of the late civil rights pioneer John Lewis.
21st century technology has given us the tools to spread the word about social justice issues and mobilize activists like never before. But at the heart of every movement is people. Today’s progressive movements are ultimately about mutuality, healing, and transformation—exactly what we need to realize the healthier, more equitable and just world our hearts know is possible.
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