The birth of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement can be traced to online response to the lack of traditional media’s coverage of the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. “Black Twitter,” a term referring to African-American discourse dominating Twitter, played a pivotal role in BLM memetic success. Brock found that 25% of online Blacks used Twitter, compared to 9% of online Whites.39 Black discursive culture—specifically signifyin’s focus on invention, delivery, ritual, and audience participation—works well with Twitter’s focus on rapid discussion between groups of connected users.40 Black Twitter hashtag domination of the trending topics allowed outsiders to view and report on Black discourse.41
Trayvon Martin was gunned down in Florida on Feb. 27, 2012, by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch leader. The incident received little media attention and for 45 days no charges were brought against him. It wasn’t until the following social media elements were employed that national and international outcry occurred, leading to the arrest of Zimmerman: the “justice for Trayvon Martin facebook page;” the “prosecute the killer of our son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin” petition on change.org; the “million hoodie march” video; and an organized march to the United Nations (UN) headquarters.42 Reminiscent of the 2011 “dark glasses portrait,” where Chinese citizens donned sunglasses and posted selfies in support of dissident Chen Guangcheng and his family, the million hoodie march video asked Martin supporters to post profile pictures of themselves with a hoodie on, to internalize the message and “help create a portrait of America that won’t stand for racial profiling.”43 The power of the meme lay with the participants’ personal identification with it and those who created imitations or replications shared a common ideology and cause. It transformed the hoodie from a negative stereotype for the Black community to a symbol of unity. Meme variations allowed people to participate in a collective action while maintaining their sense of individuality.44
Memetic success was unprecedented and it became the engagement model for subsequent BLM campaigns. It also marked the beginning of a paradigm shift in driving social change in the United States. The Million Hoodie video was launched on Monday, March 19, 2012; by Tuesday, the Trayvon Martin story was trending on Twitter, and spiked 19% to garner 1/5th of all news coverage; on Wednesday 5,000 people rallied in Union Square; on Thursday, it was covered on the front page of the New York Times; and on Friday, President Obama spoke to the nation reflecting, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”.45 The circulation of affect resulted in over 500,000 Hoodie memes posted; over 3,000 media outlets mentioned it worldwide; the change.org petition collected over two million signatures exceeding the goal by 200%; it was the only story to surpass the Presidential election story in 2012.46 Additionally, over 50 schools in Florida staged walkout protests; the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called for an immediate investigation; Congressman Bobby Rush wore a hoodie on the United States House floor; the arrest of Zimmerman and charge of second-degree murder; the Sanford, Florida police chief resigned; a special appointment to review Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law was ordered; and it provoked a national discussion about racial inequality and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
The power of the Hoodie meme lay within an emotional reaction that the images provoked, which were laden with cultural cues representing systemic racism in America. Ordinary people who created personalized variations, shared a common ideology, and spread both content and affect, sparking additional engagement. The memes allowed for participation in a collective action, while maintaining a sense of individuality.47 The personal nature of the object symbolized the injustice that Martin and others endure and affected a national discussion about racial equality in America and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.
Above: The Million Hoodie March poster (Maree 2012) and various Hoodie memes (knowyourmeme.com, 2014).
Daniel Maree, one of the creators of the million march video said, “Thanks to social media and the power of human connection, the Trayvon Martin story and subsequent meme campaign defined how news and information travel in the Internet age.”48 Kevin Cunningham, the man who created the Trayvon Martin change.org petition added, “You don’t have to go through institutions anymore. Any individual with any idea can make it work if they have (a) connection to the Internet.”49
While the social media campaign and its affect led to the arrest of George Zimmerman, he was found not guilty in the 24-day murder trial, after the jury deliberated for 16 hours. Many perceived this verdict as an injustice of similar magnitude to previous ones rendered to African-Americans. Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer, stated that Trayvon Martin would “go down in the annals of history next to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till as symbols of the fight for equal justice for all.”50 The unjust verdict laid the foundation for a resurgence in civil rights issues and Black Lives Matter founding members Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi reacted. Garza stated “It was as if we had all been punched in the gut, Martin could just as easily have been my brother. I felt not only enraged but a deep sense of grief that I can't protect him. I can't protect him against this cancer,” referring to racism. 51 She posted a “love note to Black people” on Facebook that ended with an idea that it was time to organize and ensure “that black lives matter.” A friend, Patrisse Cullors, put a hashtag in front of those three words and #BlackLivesMatter was born. The hashtag meme spread quickly online and offline because it distilled the complexities of police brutality, racial inequality and social justice into a simple, easy to remember slogan that fits in a Tweet or on a T-shirt.52 A third friend, Opal Tometi, built the online platform to connect with one another, share stories, strategize and collaborate, mobilizing a new wave of civil rights protests that the New York Times magazine would call the 21st Century’s first civil rights movement.53
When Zimmerman was acquitted, Garza posted her love letter to Black people on FB, ending with “black lives matter.” Adding a hashtag in front of those words allowed others to be part of the conversation, offering diverse voices. It spread on and offline, mobilizing actions protesting the additional unjust deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland (among others). Response memes such as #HandsUpDon’tShoot, #ICan’tBreathe and #SayHerName gave a different perspective than those of the police and justice system. These and other conversations, such as #AllLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, and #TakeaKnee figured prominently in the 2016 Presidential election and Cheryl Sanders, Facebook COO, said that Black Lives Matter topped the list of “global moments” in 2016.
Internet memes are powerful. They can change discourse, engage activism, and turn a visceral reaction into real and lasting change.
When Donald Trump’s infamous “pussy-grabbing” recording became public in 2016, outrage reverberated throughout American, and the world, sparking action and engagement like never before. The emotional avalanche included many meme series including the #FirstAssault ones started by Canadian Kelly Oxford, in which she calls on women to describe their first experiences with sexual assault. She started the onslaught with hers, reading: “Old Man on city bus grabs my pussy and smiles at me, I’m 12.”54 Others in that series, paint a grim and authentic account of the reality that girls and women face. They exposed the pervasiveness of rape culture and called in to question the dismissive attitudes that permeate our societies.55
Above: #FirstAssault meme (twitter.com, 2016)
Another reaction to Trump’s hot mic moment, and his presidential election, include the PussyHat memes. The #PussyHat project, created by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, became part of a movement that gained speed after Trump’s election. The knitted hat, meant to be a positive reappropriation of the word, color, and craft, became a powerful symbol of resistance to Trump and other misogynists.56 While the word “pussy,” the color pink, and knitting are associated with the feminine as a negative, this initiative turned it around to symbolize strength and unity.57 The goal, for people to knit and wear these hats in solidarity at the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration, was a huge success, due to immense on and offline contagion of both content and affect.
Above: PussyHat memes (instagram.com, twitter.com, 2016)
#PussyHat memes began dispersing among networks and even those that did not knit a hat, participated in memetic success by sharing, retweeting and/or attending a March. Adding a hashtag allowed others to be a part of the conversation, offering diverse and varied voices. It spread quickly, on and offline, mobilizing action against Trump and his ideology. Women (and men) who never identified as a feminist, or participated in political activism, were moved to do so. The collection and totality of these memes created on and offline spaces for consciousness raising and community building.
Some prominent feminists fear the sentiment was not serious enough. Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media and author of We Were Feminists Once, was uncomfortable making cheery accessories into visual symbols. “What we face now in Congress, the White House, and in State Legislatures nationwide—is not cutesy at all. It’s terrifying,” she said.58 But contemporary feminist theory rejects the notion that feminism can be expressed in only one way.59 Sexism and misogyny effect people differently as their multiple identity categories influence an individualized experience and expression thereof. Zweman captured that definition by stating, “Choosing to be part of this project means taking part in something, where thousands of women are supporting and standing up for each other while representing themselves.”60
Those who participated in the Women’s March shared a common ideology and it was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, with world-wide participation estimated at five million. People came together in solidarity, taking engagement to the next level, and many women became politically active for the first time.
The first Women’s March Convention took place in October 2017 with the ultimate goal of teaching women how to build power, register voters, and organize to run for office in 2018 and beyond.61 Agencies dedicated to electing women to office such as She Should Run, Emily’s List, and Emerge America, all saw huge increases in interest, to the tune of 2,000%.62
National discourse around the #MeToo movement stands as another example. The #MeToo campaign was started by Tarana Burke in 2006 to support survivors of sexual violence — in particular, black and brown girls.63 It gained national and international attention in 2017, when celebrity actress Alyssa Milano encouraged others to tweet about their sexual assault experiences, after Harvey Weinstein was accused of repeated sexual assault and misconduct.64 Milano tweeted “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘#me too. If we all did that, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
Above: #MeToo meme (twitter.com, 2017)
Within 24 hours of posting, the hashtag was the top trending topic on twitter, and received more than 38,000 comments, 13,000 retweets and 27,000 likes. It spread like wildfire to Facebook where over 70,000 #MeToo posts appeared within 12 hours, It gave women the courage to speak their truth and other high-profile men were toppled, such as Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Kevin Spacey. Like a shot heard round the world, it was quickly adapted into France’s #BalanceTonPorc (#denounceYourPig), Arab’s #Ana_kaman, Spanish speaking countries’ #YoTambien, and Italy’s #QuellaVoltache.65
Above: #YoTambién (MeToo) meme (twitter.com, 2017)
In December of 2017, TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” were those “silence breakers” from the #MeToo movement. The story featured a group of women (and men) who had spoken out against sexual harassment and assault, and detailed key moments in the years and decades prior. The #MeToo movement was a long time in coming, but there is no doubt that social media accelerated and ignited the fire of change.66
One result of that was the foundation of the Times Up organization. Inspired by a letter of solidarity representing 700,000 women farmworkers, Times Up announced their organization in a letter published in the New York Times on Jan 1 of 2018. Among other initiatives, it established a legal defense fund to help women and men across all industries, hold those responsible for sexual assault accountable. At present, they have raised more than $20 million and gathered 800 volunteer lawyers.67
These actions have inspired millions of women in at least 85 countries who have used the #MeToo hashtag as a rallying cry, building communities around advocacy, and challenging repressive laws and power structures.68 Kim Ji-eun of South Korea, inspired by the #MeToo movement which gave her the courage to come forward, toppled Governor Ahn Hee-jung, a prominent politician in line for the presidency, by exposing him for repeatedly raping her. In China, the movement has surfaced in the University industry where, by one survey, 70% of University students said they had been sexually harassed by Professors. Luo Xixi, again inspired by the #MeToo movement, posted about her abuse 13 years ago with a Professor under the hashtag campaign. Her post garnered 3 million views within the first day, and she and other victims gathered evidence resulting in his dismissal, establishing a precedent for others to do the same and change their cultural norm.69