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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.

Cyber interconnected city

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.

Social media emojis and phone

Social media

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

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.

Voters using a United States Pol booth