How 2020 became the summer of activism both online and offline

Emilee Geist

A pandemic, the death of George Floyd and an upcoming presidential election were just a few of the things that have called Americans to action this year. But while some called 2020 the apocalypse, others said it is a much needed look in the mirror. “So, 2020 is this really […]

A pandemic, the death of George Floyd and an upcoming presidential election were just a few of the things that have called Americans to action this year.

But while some called 2020 the apocalypse, others said it is a much needed look in the mirror.

“So, 2020 is this really intense year with all of these things happening … we have these social uprisings and I think that one thing I don’t really know if people realize that the pandemic is doing is — it is revealing all of the social cracks in our country,” Lydia Kelow-Bennett, assistant professor in the department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, said.

The summer was marked by a surging movement of activism calling for social change but with the coronavirus pandemic affecting how people interact with one another, many of these calls to action took place online.

Social movements fueled by social media are not new, according to Alyssa Bowen, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with an expertise as a historian of global contemporary social movements. She pointed to the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements, both of which occurred in the early 2010s, as predecessors of 2020s progression into digital activism. And with the pandemic forcing people into their homes, oftentimes they could watch a protest against the president or a protest for Black Lives Matter unfold in real time.

“You’re seeing people staying at home without a ton to do except watch Netflix and go on Twitter, and I think people took great notice of what’s going on even more than usual, because they had real-time access to what was going on at the protests,” Bowen said.

While it’s unclear if the summer of 2020 marked a milestone in terms of the number of online activist movements, it was anything but quiet.

“It was a very activist summer in the United States,” said Stephen Duncombe, a professor of media and culture at New York University and a co-founder of the Center for Artistic Activism.

The summer of protest and a pandemic

George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day set in motion a national reckoning with the systemic inequity that Black Americans have been subjected to in this country for centuries. Thousands took to the streets in protest of anti-Black racism and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I do think that white Americans had a different experience with the death of George Floyd than they had with deaths of quite literally dozens of other Black people going all the way back to [the attack on] Rodney King in the 90s,” Kelow-Bennett said.

Image: Georgia (Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images file)
Image: Georgia (Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images file)

The flames of activism and protest continued to burn in the digital space as well, where social movements both macro and micro attempted to chip away at biases and inequities.

On Twitter, people began matching donations en masse to bail funds. In one case, more than 50,000 individuals donated $1.8 million in 24 hours to support the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. But less substantial acts, like when about 28 million people posted plain black squares to Instagram as part of #BlackoutTuesday, were criticized for subscribing to a kind of “slacktivism” and for drowning out important hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter.

Cracks that had been revealed in the social systems of the nation fueled national anger as people attempted to find ways to make their frustration known.

“People felt that the system wasn’t working. Not just the police system, although obviously the police system wasn’t working, but that was symptomatic of a much larger failure,” Duncombe said.

Over the summer, social media was awash with different forms of protest, with performers like Tobe Nwigwe using TikTok to share his song, “I Need You To,” which became an anthem in calling for the officers’ involved in Breonna Taylor’s death to be arrested.

But beyond Nwigwe’s song, Taylor’s death began to take shape as a meme, often using the format of a misdirect where a person would tweet or post a video that at first appeared to be about a mundane task and then would pivot into a call for justice.

Some said keeping the calls alive by any means was worth it, but others said the format trivialized her death.

Kelow-Bennett said the memes felt both like an act of desperation by some who were seeking to raise awareness by any means necessary, while in other cases, opportunists were using the moment to chase clout.

“It’s also an opportunity, if we’re honest, for easy activism. Like, if you post this Breonna Taylor thing, you let people know what it is you support, and you support justice for her, but it can become very performative,” she said.

While some users harnessed social media to demand justice for the victims of systemic inequity, others used it to hold the platforms themselves accountable.

On TikTok, Black users demanded that platforms address their own internal biases and elevate the content of creators of color at the same rate as their white counterparts.

In June, the app apologized to its Black users, acknowledged the inconsistency in what content was being elevated and promised to do better.

Some Black users reported seeing an improvement, while others said the app still had large strides to make.

While it’s hard to know who is partaking in meaningful activism and who is partaking solely in “slacktivism,” much of the movements of the summer took place online. But the ease of participating in online activism can sometimes be its Achilles’ heel, Duncombe said.

Image: Protesters raise their fist during a demonstration in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020. (John Minchillo / AP)
Image: Protesters raise their fist during a demonstration in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020. (John Minchillo / AP)

“The ease in which you can buy up all the tickets to Trump’s election rally, the ease at which you can send off a petition, also is its weakness too,” he said.

Teens, TikTok and Trump

Online activism also took on politics this summer — one notable organized effort was an attempt to affect the attendance numbers at President Donald Trump’s Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally in June.

K-pop stans, or ardent fans of Korean pop music, joined forces with TikTok users to attempt to troll the president by reserving tickets to the rally with no intention of attending. Trump’s re-election team boasted it would fill the BOK Center, which can hold as many as 19,000, but only 6,200 supporters showed up, the Tulsa fire marshal told NBC News — though it’s unclear if the effort actually affected attendance.

“Leftists and online trolls doing a victory lap, thinking they somehow impacted rally attendance, don’t know what they’re talking about or how our rallies work,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s then campaign manager, said after the event.

When Trump said he would ban TikTok on the last day of July, users claimed it was retaliation for their troll. However, there’s no evidence the president was after retribution in making the move.

Kelly Dittmar, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden, said the younger generation deserves some credit for using a new tool for outreach and engagement.

“It actually doesn’t matter so much if it messed up the rally. It matters if it got some young people who wouldn’t have otherwise thought about this presidential election to think about it and to think about the implications,” Dittmar said.

Clara McCourt, 18, of New Jersey, who had made a ticket reservation to the rally, said at the time that TikTok had been used as a tool for political organizing and could be a boon or a threat to the candidates.

“I personally see a lot of politics on my TikTok … it’s definitely a very powerful tool in informing my generation,” she said.

In a Pew Research survey conducted in June, 54 percent of social media users, ages 18 to 29, responded saying they had used social media platforms in the last month to look for information about rallies or protests happening in their area.

The advent and rise of the internet has democratized the ability to speak, Duncombe said, adding that this means it has also given even young people — who are sometimes too young to vote — a way to make their voices heard.

“I’m not surprised to see young people being more active because in a lot of ways young people have a sense of agency online that I certainly didn’t have when I was their age. They’re used to being heard,” Duncomb said.

Other ways young people mobilized online this summer include March For Our Lives, which was unable to hold its typical rallies and marches, pushing for voter registration in digital spaces, and groups like The Poll Hero Project working to get young people to sign up to work polling places not only to avoid the potential shortage but also to relieve older poll workers who could be more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Beyond politics, teens also utilized social media to fight misogyny, traditional beauty standards and racism.

Scarce moments of joy

Amid the global pandemic and moments of protest and fear, were sparse moments of joy.

Meme culture continued to thrive in quarantine, gifting the internet instant classics such as the “Laughing Jordan,” a series of images from the ESPN documentary series “The Last Dance.”

Scores of people fell in love with the “Strawberry Dress,” a nearly $500 Lirika Matoshi design that in any other summer would have been seen by those wearing it running into one another, but instead helped people feel a little more fashionable amid the sweatpants fatigue of quarantine.

And the song of the summer, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” a female empowerment anthem with not-safe-for-work lyrics was both fitting of a summer marked by moving the needle forward for equality, while also giving the world a moment to dance away its troubles.

Kelow-Bennett said the joy of “WAP” is emblematic of both the ability of Black Americans to hold both joy and sorrow in the same moment, a type of contradiction that was highlighted this summer.

“Living with this long amazing history of having come so far and looking to the future and realizing we still have at least as far to go to see freedom, those contradictions are what mark Black experience. They are what makes us special. It’s what makes us, I believe as a professor of these things, us beautiful,” she said.

With the reflection of the summer on the cracks in the social systems of America, the fever pitch of protest and an onslaught of social movements, Kelow-Bennett said while some may call the summer of 2020 a turning point for the country, she sees it as a breaking point.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, she said. She likened it to a broken leg that continues to heal improperly, and the only way to fully repair the limb is to break it again.

“That is kind of how I see the United States. We keep trying to heal these breaks but they’re not set right in the first place, and so the reason then why these issues keep coming up, the reason why we have not addressed racial justice, effectively in this country, is because we never set the break,” she said.

“… we could use this opportunity as a breaking point to break and reset something on a better course.”

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