In 2013, Buzzfeed’s Shani O. Hilton commented that ‘the hive has become a swarm’ when writing about the power of Black Twitter. What formed naturally as a source of entertainment, built upon the shared humour and experiences of mostly African-American users, has transformed into a formidable and essential force for cultural activism in 2015. The humorously incisive commentary (often culminating in viral hashtags), combined with the first-hand, uncensored coverage of injustice and controversy, enables Black Twitter to wield so much influence in popular media.
When Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP leader, allegedly lied to the organisation about her race, Black Twitter hilariously ridiculed her identification with the African American community with the trend #AskRachel. Not for the first time, satirical tweets accompanied outraged discussion about racism and cultural appropriation. Of course, these issues are nothing new to the black community: the crucial factor is that now the conversation is online, amplified to an audience of non-black social media users. The LA Times recently hired a full-time reporter to cover Black Twitter topics, reflecting the growing interest surrounding it. Although not ‘mainstream’ (and it is probably best this way), it is powerful enough to inspire discussion about race and cultural differences. It is influential enough to shape popular internet humour, with #TweetLikeJadenSmith, #GrowingUpBlack, and recent viral video ‘Why You Lying‘ being a testament to this.
In Black Twitter, everything is a talking point or a source of entertainment. More importantly, everybody is accountable for their actions: countless public figures and news publications have been called out for offensive comments or behaviour. In 2013, PR representative Justine Sacco tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” to her 170 followers just before boarding an 11-hour flight. Whilst she slept on the plane, her racist tweet went viral and Black Twitter called on her employer IAC to fire her. Swift-moving and determined is true; yet far from being just an overzealous witch hunt, the points being made highlight long-standing issues which are incredibly valid and relevant to the black community.
When it comes to cultural activism, the depth of social media’s power and reach is hardly a surprise. This has been exemplified before by the Arab Spring, when it was crucial for defying state censorship and organising protests. Likewise, Black Twitter has been unyielding in the fight against racism and inequality, particularly police brutality in the USA. Courtesy of those at the forefront of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, uncensored coverage of demonstrations is instantly available on your timeline, with the latest updates being shared thousands of times before it has even reached any news desk.
Black Twitter can be credited for the spread of #BringBackOurGirls, #HandsUpDontShoot and #ICantBreathe, and after the shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown, it confronted the unfair portrayal of black people in Western media with #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Twitter reaches audiences that traditional media sources do not, and activists need that. When in other instances mainstream attention might have withered away, Black Twitter has kept the conversation alive.