Is Twitter the underground railroad of activism?

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

Published July 17, 2013 3:00PM (EDT)

Zimmerman verdict demonstrators march toward Times Square           (AP/John Minchillo)
Zimmerman verdict demonstrators march toward Times Square (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.

By Feminista Jones

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.

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Activism Black Twitter George Zimmerman Trayvon Martin Twitter Zimmerman Trial