The Current

How 'Black Twitter' and BlackLivesMatter hashtag gave voice to marginalized groups

Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner — three cases of black American men whose deaths came to mainstream attention thanks in part to what is called "Black Twitter." The Current tracks how social media shared the stories of marginalized groups.
Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in the Florida gated community of Sanford, Feb. 26, 2012. He was 17-years-old. (Martin Family Photos, File/Associated Press)

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Five years ago, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., by a neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, as he was walking home from a convenience store wearing a hoodie and holding a bag of Skittles, and a can of juice.
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, holds up a card with a photo of her son. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

Initially Martin's murder was only covered as a crime story by local media, but as details of the incident emerged, an outcry on social media helped turn the incident into a major national news story. 

"What we see with Trayvon Martin's story is really that moment where social media becomes incredibly important to the way we make stories," says Erhardt Graeff, a PhD researcher at The MIT Media Lab and lead author of the study,The Battle For Trayvon Martin: Mapping a media controversy online and offline.


Graeff says another significant development in the way media covered the stories of black men and women being killed by authorities in America was the first use of the #BlackLivesMatter in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted. 

"Black Lives Matter created a hashtag that allowed for a lot of different isolated incidents to be seen as a connected arch," says Graeff.
Demonstrators protest outside the Ferguson police department, Oct. 11, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

"Now we see a pattern and we can communicate that pattern to people consuming media and say this is a real issue. Look at all of these cases." 

Trayvon Martin was one of the first of many shootings of unarmed African Americans that caused an outcry among the loose network of predominantly African American Twitter users known as "Black Twitter."  

In the weeks after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, #BlackLivesMatter was used 1.7 million times.  

Sherri Williams is a faculty member at the communication department at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and a freelance journalist. She says social media is a platform for marginalized groups to talk back to the media. 

"Every story that goes to the newsroom doesn't exactly end up on the air.  Some of those reasons have to do with power relations and the social power that groups do and don't have, but with social media, people of colour, marginalized people don't have to wait for someone else's permission, and they don't have to wait for someone else to decide if their stories are and their issues are newsworthy, they can just do it themselves." 

Other marginalized groups have taken note of the success of hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter in shaping mainstream media coverage.


When the murder of three Muslim-Americans by their neighbour in Chapel Hill, N.C., was barely covered by the media, #MuslimsLivesMatter trended on Twitter within 24 hours.
A makeshift memorial is made following the murders of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

At first the tweets were aimed at shaming the media into covering the story. But when the story was portrayed as a parking dispute, rather than what the family believed was a hate crime, social media encouraged the media to reframe the way the story was being told. 

"This is another time that people of colour have found that their stories have not been told in a way that is complete and with context so they didn't allow the mainstream media to continue to set the agenda," says media expert Sherri Williams. 


In Canada, hashtag activism has also influenced mainstream media coverage. In 2015, then prime minister Stephen Harper stood up in the House of Commons  to defend the government's niqab ban in citizenship ceremonies.  

Many women were offended that the leader of this country was telling them how to dress. The next day #DressCodePM trended nationwide. The story was then featured on most Canadian media outlets.  

A hashtag created to mock Prime Minister Stephen Harper's "anti-women" niqab comments trended across Canada as thousands weighed in to share their own thoughts on the issue. (Right: geekylonglegs on Twitter, Left: @annascottpiano on Twitter)

Amna Qureshi is a criminal defence lawyer based in Edmonton and one of the women tweeting the hashtag. She said it was the hashtag that gave a voice to Muslim women.

"I thought that was very empowering because it told me that minority voices can be heard on a national level," she says. 

A University of Alberta study found that in 2011, in the three weeks after the niqab ban was introduced in citizenship ceremonies, only one woman wearing a niqab was interviewed. She was quoted in three out of 80 online and print stories.

In the weeks that followed the DressCodePM hashtag, there were five women who wore a niqab quoted by Canadian media. 

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by the CBC's Dalia Thamin and The Current's Josh Bloch.