Time in the age of the Coronavirus and #BlackLivesMatter: a dossier    

[Click on link to go to each essay]

The South China Morning Post covers the protest in Seoul, South Korea

Synchronicity, social media, and
the modern protest movement

by Cara Caddoo

When the protests erupted in Minneapolis, I was headed to the hospital. In the nervous minutes before I was given anesthesia, I scrolled through Twitter and Facebook, feeling angry, frustrated, sick. Breonna Taylor had been killed just a few months earlier. George Floyd had died not far from where I grew up, murdered in broad daylight on a busy city street in the presence of dozens of onlookers. I don’t remember what happened next or much of the week after but when I was finally alert enough to make sense of what was going on around me, it felt like the world had shifted. Had public opinion really changed so quickly? In the months that followed, it became clear that I wasn’t alone. Although the Black Lives Matter movement remains divisive, and though years of organizing and direct action led to the responses that we saw last summer, those weeks proved pivotal. What was once perceived as a series of scattered events was now understood as a social movement of national and global proportions.

As an historian of the media and Black social movements, I’m often asked about how Black Lives Matter compares to the protest movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Although I see them as two distinct moments, it’s clear they share considerable commonalities in terms of their goals and strategies. Both social movements (broadly defined as ongoing collective action by people who believe that they share a common purpose) have relied on access to physical and virtual public spaces where people can exchange ideas, form shared opinions, and organize themselves. In this respect, we can see Black newspapers, magazines, and radio, and an analog to social media and its critical role in facilitating the formation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Moreover, both of these movements brought together a series of geographically disperse actions by different groups of people who came to see themselves progressing together in time toward a shared cause.

Few moments have so clearly brought to relief the interplay of these factors—space, place, and time—than the events of this past year. As we have seen with recent Black Lives Matter marches, rallies, and other demonstrations, IRL gatherings and collective actions are a crucial component of the movement. But modern social movements also require a sense of synchronicity between strangers who have never met or directly communicated with each other. As the pandemic has transformed our relationship to physical public spaces, #BlackLivesMatter activists have become increasingly sophisticated in their use of Twitter and other social media platforms, which they have crafted into virtual public spaces where they speak simultaneously to those whom we might define as their counterpublics, which as Michael Warner explains are groups that maintain “at some level, conscious or not, an awareness of its subordinate status” and to the larger public whose opinions they may or may not share on any particular issue.

In using the term synchronicity, I’m referring less here to Jung’s emphasis on coincidence than I am to the widely-perceived, culturally and socially determined effects of sync sound motion pictures. Two disparate parts, for example--the image of a man moving his mouth and a recorded track of sound, generate what we interpret as a seamless, a unified image of a person speaking. Perhaps most obviously, I’m borrowing here from Benedict Anderson to describe how participants of social movements generate something akin to simultaneity, the sense of progressing together through linear time. But equally important is understanding how social movements are constituted through connections forged across difference. Stuart Hall’s ideas of articulation and Brent Edward’s writing on Diaspora are particularly useful for getting us to think about synchronicity in a way that accounts for the work involved in activism and facilitated by social media. Just as the film editor meticulously aligns image with sound or synchronized swimmers move intentionally together, activists have worked to forge connections between their different actions, words, posts, tweets, and likes.

By emphasizing synchronicity, I don’t want to endorse a romanticization of protest movements in the vein of liberal humanism, which too often depicts legible forms of resistance as an awakening of the people to their own oppression. Nor should we assume that when things get bad enough, people will naturally revolt. Things have been bad. Social movements gain traction and collapse for reasons that have nothing to do with the desire, commitment or righteousness of their participants. And yet, social movements are in themselves indications of shifts in power and without desire, commitment and righteousness, we have little chance for effecting real change. We are best positioned to understand the potential for a more just future by thinking broadly and historically about what has changed to make this present moment possible.

Because I am not the most competent user of social media, I’ve invited two students to join me in thinking about social media and its place in the longer history of Black activism. Jaicey Bledsoe is a sophomore double majoring in Cinema & Media Arts and in Theatre & Drama at Indiana University, Bloomington and is a regular columnist for the Indiana Daily Student. Travis Wright is a doctoral student in American History at Indiana University, Bloomington, whose research considers the role of lesser-known activist organizations such as the Chicago Friends of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee).

Bledsoe’s and Wright’s essays underscore the importance of thinking about contingency and context when we consider what is exceptional about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The fact that neither anti-Black violence nor the struggle against it are unique to our present historical moment is made abundantly clear in their essays, which reflect on the 1950s, 1980s, and today.

Their essays also remind us that context matters when it comes to the ways that visibility is produced, communicated, and interpreted through social media. Both Bledsoe and Wright point to the ways particular images have served as flashpoints in the history of the longer Black Freedom Movement. Yet they also emphasize how important it is to consider how, where, and with whom images are shared. As Bledsoe explains, she was able to frame her online conversations about anti-Black violence with “the benefit of readily accessible articles, books, and posts I’ve seen shared.” Wright’s essay similarly underscores how the Black press contextualized the images of Emmett Till in ways the resisted the previous circulation of images of Black lynching while also reminding us of the complex and vexed problem of visually representing Black death.

Left: In 2014, the New York Police Department attempted to launch a feel-good publicity campaign on Twitter with the hashtag #MyNYPD.

Below: #MyNYPD was soon co-opted by critics of police violence.