Protests and social media: How dissent and technology intersect to empower

By Evan Heichelbech, F/G Scholar

Mary Beth Tinker is nearly five decades removed from the landmark Supreme Court ruling which told her she didn’t have to shed her constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, but she credits more than just the Supreme Court justices for her 13-year-old self’s victory in the case.

She’s quick to thank her parents, attorney and classmates who wore black armbands with peace signs to school alongside her in protest of the Vietnam War in 1965, but she made it a point to extend her gratitude in another direction as well.

“I have to thank so much the Des Moines Register,” Tinker said. “They really supported us. They even wrote an editorial.”

But beyond the editorial, why is the coverage of Tinker’s hometown newspaper one of the top recipients of her gratitude? To her, there are many reasons, but one stands out in particular.

It was in the Des Moines Register where Tinker’s local school board president was quoted demanding the public’s support of President Richard Nixon’s position on Vietnam.

“That really helped us in court,” she said. “That right there just kind of … like no, sorry, that’s not how democracy works. Isn’t it amazing that the president of a school board knows less about democracy than an eighth grade kid?”

Tinker was not the first person to understand the importance of media when it comes to protest, and she certainly was not the last. She saw firsthand the impact the media coverage had, but what if #TinkerVDesMoines was trending on Twitter just hours after she and 11 others got sent home from school that day? Would a Snapchat video of her wearing the armband in class have gone viral? The Facebook comments would almost undoubtedly have gotten out of hand.

Of course, these hypotheticals can’t be solved, but today, social media has all the answers. As protests have evolved over time, so too have the tools available to aid them. When combined with a protest, social media acts as a vehicle of organization, communication and empowerment.

Platforms like Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram have become indispensable in the arena of successful modern dissent, but the success and legacy of free speech in action before and after the rise of social media leave many parallels to be drawn.

No matter how widely or quickly a protest spreads, it all starts with a conversation about an idea or issue. But the success of a protest hinges on how well that conversation or idea is communicated.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the most controversial of Americans’ conversations were centered around the divisive war in Vietnam. Kent State University was a place where those conversations had turned into protests, pickets and eventually, deaths.

The iconic photographs from the protests before and after Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds, killing four and injuring nine others on May 4, 1970 feature homemade signs, flags and flyers.

Photo taken from the May 4 Visitor’s Center at Kent State University

It took hard work for phrases like, “Please! Dissent is not a crime!” to make it onto a single poster than it would to come across your screen in a tweet today.

“I really envy [today’s] generation,” said Alan Canfora, one of the nine wounded on May 4. “Back then, just to make a protest flyer saying, ‘We’re gonna have a meeting tonight at 7 o’clock,’ it would take like an hour or two just to make the flyer.”

Stencils and special paper were parts of the process, but word of mouth was essential in communicating the goals of activists like Canfora, who was a member of the radical Students for a Democratic Society organization at Kent State.

“Just to print out sometimes one word would take 15 minutes,” Canfora said. “It was such a hassle. Then you had to go out and pass the flyers out at the commons or the student union.”

In the days following the shootings, student protesters like Canfora helped communicate a new protest in response: A national student strike. More than 4 million students across the country’s 2,500 colleges and universities walked out in protest of the lives lost on Kent State’s campus.

Almost exactly 48 years later, 17 lives were taken at the hands of a gunman inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The response from the surviving students was immediate and clear.

By February 18, 2018 – just four days after the third-deadliest school shootingin U.S. history—Stoneman Douglas students had come up with a response. By using the hashtag#neveragain on social media sites like Twitter and Instagram, a group of high school students had rapidly united to organize a nationwide student strike of their own.

Stoneman Douglas senior Daniel Williams was one of 20 founding members of the #MarchForOurLives demonstration that took place in Washington D.C. on March 24, 2018. Over 800 similar demonstrations took place on that day across the globe.

“We got so much support,” Williams said at the 2018 College Media Convention. “We got funding from George Clooney and Oprah. They donated each a half million dollars. We put all that funding toward this demonstration that will be in the history books.”

From Lady GaGa to Garth Brooks, celebrities were sharing their support of the movement on twitter using the hashtags. 

Donations like Clooney and Winfrey’s went a long way to helping the march happen, and Williams said the urgency of communication about the march on social media was key.

“I believe part of the reason why we were able to plan it in five weeks is because we’re teenagers,” Williams said. “We want things done now. We don’t like waiting on things.”

Whether or not the effectiveness and speed of #MarchForOurLives will be written about in the same chapter of history textbooks as the Kent State shootings or a few chapters apart, both protests deserve to be remembered and studied.

While one used a hashtag and the other relied on traditional media coverage after and word of mouth to spread, students from both Parkland and Kent State were able to affect an organized, responsive protest in a major way.

“Ideas are fine, but unless you can affect political power, it’s strictly like an intellectual exercise,” Canfora said. “Like these young people out of Parkland, Florida, they’re such an inspiration to me. David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez and people like that, they know the importance of voting and targeting who are the people that are responsible for the problems that are happening.”

The turnout and overall success of #MarchForOurLives helped show how powerful the channels of social media can be in terms of organizing and communicating, but the end result was one of empowerment.

The nature of the events that led to the march were horrifying enough to rally people behind the students’ cause, but what happens when the objective of a social media driven protest isn’t so clear?

In 2013, after David Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of African-American teen Trayvon Martin, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was born. Similar to #MarchForOurLives, the movement took off, uniting people to speak up for equality and against police brutality all through the internet.

The Black Lives Matter movement is different than most protests in that it has no central focus.

“It’s decentralized but coordinated,” Maurice Mitchell, an activist from the group called Blackbird, told “There are no top-down mandates.”

While it may not be perfectly tied together and clearly defined, Black Lives Matter remains in the news five years since it was originally shared. As evidenced in response to the killings of black men like Philando Castile, Eric Garner and the chaos raised in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was killed in 2014, Black Lives Matter has shown significant staying power on social media platforms.

These kinds of organic social media protests have become a place of empowerment to encourage people to exercise free speech concerning social issues.

One significant aspect of empowerment that filter-less social media platforms allow for is a sense of reality. Videos of SWAT teamsevacuating Stoneman Douglas High School and screenshots of texts from students to their family members from inside the building on the day of the shooting brought a raw sense of emotion to social media users across the world. The color and details from the scene were no longer isolated to Parkland, Florida. It could now be felt by anyone with a smartphone.

Opportunities like these are what Canfora wishes his generation could have taken advantage of with social media.

“If there was social media back then, all the lies about Vietnam wouldn’t have been able to have been perpetrated for so many years,” he said. “You get the real story of what’s going on. It’s a much better situation now.”

Alan Canfora

Dissent has been a foundational part of American history for as long as the First Amendment has existed to protect it. The technological change across generations of protesters has certainly altered the way dissent has taken shape, but it has not fundamentally changed what lies at its core.

Despite the successes of their own activism decades ago, some past protesters seem to agree that a few hundred thousand tweets or snapchats on their side couldn’t have hurt their cause.

“If we had social media, I think it really would’ve helped us,” Tinker said. “It would’ve helped us feel not quite so alone.”

Because, after all, a protest is unified democracy in action.

“Social media has its ups and its downs, but overall I think it has a very democratizing effect,” Canfora said. “It’s very good.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s