Is Twitter the underground railroad of activism?

The Zimmerman trial may have introduced white America to "Black Twitter," but its roots go back centuries

Topics: Twitter, zimmerman trial, Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, black twitter, Activism, , ,

Is Twitter the underground railroad of activism?Zimmerman verdict demonstrators march toward Times Square (Credit: AP/John Minchillo)

“It’s just Twitter” is a refrain often tweeted by people who insist that they don’t take much of what they read on Twitter seriously. For them, Twitter is simply another social media platform they can log onto, browse a few tweets and trends, and check up on their favorite celebrities’ latest antics before logging off and going on about their lives. For others, though, particularly for people of color, Twitter has become one of the most important tools of modern sociopolitical activism, a powerful force in the Zimmerman trial aftermath and beyond.

African-Americans have historically relied on “alternative” communication styles and underground means to connect and build networks. Centuries ago, newly captured African slaves were separated from those who spoke their native languages to discourage organized attempts at escape. For them, finding universal means of communication, like “spirituals” or “work songs,” became essential to their survival and that of future generations. We have often used grass-roots communication to organize and mobilize efforts to achieve freedom and equality.

Early hip-hop music often contained linguistically coded messages of empowerment, hope and progress, while painting realistic pictures of poverty, crime, and racism in inner cities. The “Ebonics” debate was arguably rooted in the fear held by those who did not understand and could not speak African-American Vernacular English, and as such, felt threatened by the use of the language in classrooms and in the workplace. It is no surprise that African Americans have taken to Twitter in the way that they have, as it is yet another forum for them to reach out and build community, an action that has proven itself vital to our collective growth.

A Pew study on the demographics of social media users revealed that African Americans are among the top three groups to whom Twitter is most appealing. Overall, only about 16 percent of all Internet users use Twitter, but the variation by race/ethnicity is important to note: 26 percent of black (not Hispanic) users and 19 percent of Hispanic users actively use Twitter, compared to 14 percent of white (not Hispanic) Internet users.  Further, 11 percent of African-American users report using Twitter at least once daily, compared to only 3 percent of white users.

At least half of all African-Americans mobile users have smartphones and 58 percent access the Internet using their mobile devices. This level of perpetual connection to social media networks means black users of Twitter are able to interact with each other just about everywhere they go. Accessing and spreading useful information is as easy as opening one’s preferred Twitter app and hitting the retweet button a few times while waiting in line at the movies or riding the subway to work.

Recent months have seen increased interest in what has been called “Black Twitter”. “Black Twitter” can be described as a collective of active, primarily African-American Twitter users who have created a virtual community that participates in continuous real-time conversations.  When they work together, this collective is proving adept at bringing about a wide range of sociopolitical changes.  It doesn’t take much effort to get users to rally together behind causes that may have an impact on their lives. “We don’t need a whole bunch of background information to fight injustice — if you tell us about a problem, we can fact-check online within minutes to verify, and be down the road on tackling inequality,” says Angela Rye, director of strategic partnerships at IMPACT.

Founded in 2006, IMPACT (@teamIMPACT) has been at the forefront of e-organizing and online activism on issues primarily affecting people of color. Their “#VoteReady” campaign coordinated efforts to get people across the country registered to vote. “During the last election cycle we saw many laws changed in ways that confused voters about their rights,” says founder Joe Briggs. The team held weekly “Twitter Town Hall” meetings to disseminate information and minimize confusion about voter registration in every state. According to their #VoteReady Year End Report, they were able to reach up to 1.5 million Twitter accounts in the 24 hours after each town hall-style Twitter chat.

Paula Deen, who recently came under fire for using racial slurs and allegedly creating a hostile work environment for employees of color, experienced the power of black Twitter users who raised awareness about the lawsuit against her. Her tearful televised apology came after days of being inundated with both admonishing and humorously taunting tweets. Not only did users express outrage directly to her, they contacted the Food Network and several of the companies that carried her products and informed them that they would no longer support them if they continued to work with Deen. Other users caught on and began tweeting the same — and perhaps as a result, Deen lost at least 12 of her business connections and millions of dollars in earnings.

In the wake of George Zimmerman’s July 13 acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Twitter became a space where people could not only express their anger, disappointment and grief, but also work together to organize grassroots rallies and protests. The next day, Twitter spread the word about rallies being held in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and several other cities. Users flooded Twitter with meeting addresses, information about police activity, and several images and videos of demonstrators marching for justice. Later that evening, Juror B-37, one of six women who acquitted Zimmerman of all charges, announced in a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper that she and her attorney husband would be writing a book about her experience. Within hours, Twitter users rallied together and strongly discouraged her agent, Sharlene Martin, from moving forward. Just one day later, Juror B-37 released a statement via her agent that she would not be writing the book.

Last year, when Twitter users first learned that the young, unarmed Martin was gunned down on his way home from a local convenience store, there were protests and vigils organized within 48 to 72 hours, using outlets like Twitter and Facebook. A petition from Martin’s parents began circulating on Twitter and eventually received 2,278,988 signatures, which led to charges being filed against Zimmerman, who had not been arrested or charged by Sanford, Fla., police. This week, the NAACP circulated a petition to urge the Department of Justice to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman. Because of social media platforms like Twitter, the petition had over 1 million signatures within 72 hours of its creation.

With almost 1 million downloads of This Week In Blackness podcasts in the first quarter of 2013, producer and writer Elon James White knows firsthand how huge a role Twitter plays in connecting to users and building an audience.  “We use Twitter to disseminate and collect information to create a bigger dialogue,” White says. “On the #TWIBdocket, people will share with us articles and petitions so that we might use our platform to amplify their signal. We spread information with #TWIBnation about what we’re doing as an organization while our audience interacts with our on-demand content. When our hashtags trend nationally, it shows the concerns shared by so many in a powerful and structured manner that is hard to deny.”

We are at a critical point in America. The recent Supreme Court rulings on the Voting Rights Act and Defense of Marriage Act, the Zimmerman verdict and Texas legislation against abortions have sparked energy in people of all political stripes. People continue to use Twitter to vent their frustrations, and those who are savvy are using it to actually do something about the causes they believe in. They prove that 140 characters can be all it takes to spark a movement.

Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at She is a columnist for and section editor at Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...