Why hasn’t Social Media been more effective in bringing forth Social Justice? Some would argue that it has, by connecting people, trending the resistance against racism, and being useful in court — showing how police reports do not match the evidence widely publicized by civilians. Indeed, evidence leading to public outcry online has had concrete outcomes in trials and prevented impunity, as we’ve seen recently with the Ahmaud Arbery case. “It took two months, a leaked video and a public outcry” (Washington Post) for an arrest to happen. But considering the track record of the United States Justice System and of Social Media platforms, how much credit should we give these institutions for upholding justice? Perhaps they are doing nothing more than occasionally following the values of fairness and connectivity they are always proclaiming. Do these specific cases, that rely on the chance of someone recording at the right place and time, shake the foundations of our structurally racist society?
More often than not, articles of the past decade about Social Media and Social Justice like to present them as good friends, maybe even as “married.” Their relationship is described most disparagingly as codependent, or having some issues — but never at odds with each other. The description I present to you here is even more disparaging than one of conflict — it’s of indifference. The relationship between Social Media and Social Justice is of such little worth that they are neither married nor at odds, they are irrelevant to each other. Anything positive that comes out of their interaction is neutralized by all the negative, to the point of summoning a void into utter oblivion.
What we do with all the resources available to us is what’s relevant, not the resources themselves. Especially if these resources are for-profit companies that benefit from the elaborate marketing strategy that arises from our praise of them. Zuckerberg profits from propagating the idea that his platform is building “a stronger society that reflects all of our values,” (The Guardian) but that also means giving way for genocidal and bigoted values of movements around the world. Not to mention how Facebook depersonalized the word “friend” and capitalized on its new hollowed meaning. It’s counterintuitive (but nevertheless true) that when we overuse the word ‘Social,’ the less social we are.
Before the Internet and Xerox machines, we had the German Printing Press, and all of its spin-offs and evolutions throughout the centuries. Right before the Big turn of the century (19th to 20th), these machines were used by both sides of the conflict between abolitionists and conservative mainstream outlets. Most centuries have been marked by resistance and revolution, but this particular turn is marked by the formal end of slavery and the birth of industrial capitalism, consequently birthing the resistance movement we are still trying to bring forth today.
We no longer need access to a full staff running a proofing press the size of a living room, rolling around a few hundred pounds of metal back and forth, to produce viral media. We do need the labor of miners, factory workers, computer scientists, designers, gas utility workers, etc, for the manufacturing of our personal devices, not to mention the labor behind internet and software providers.
Much like today, those turn-of-the-century mainstream media outlets were sensational and lied often, causing both mistrust of the news and the rise of nationwide trends. The years after the Civil War, the United States experienced a massive increase in the dissemination of political information and speed in which news reached the population. This was also when the KKK arose, and consequently — Klan denialism. “There was nothing ambiguous or mysterious about the basic doings of Klansmen,” (Elaine Frantz Parsons) and yet, public discourse failed to delve deeper than the debate of whether it existed. Widespread physical evidence, witnesses, Klansmen parading by the hundreds, and speedy-far-reaching news coverage were no match for Southern pride, leading many to reveal their lack of concern for the victims by belittling the scope of the violence. Klan denialism trended.
After traveling to the United States and witnessing a harshly segregated post-slavery society, the renown Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre returned with new ideas that glorified miscegenation in Brazil, and the so-called minimizing of “africanoid exaggerations.” In contrast with the United States’ ‘one-drop rule’, Freyre claimed that “almost all of us bear the mark of [black] influence” (The Main House and the Slave Quarters), and that should be seen as delightful. His views of identity are often considered “less harsh” than most colonial perspectives, but were concocted half a century after the abolition of slavery, and formed a basis for the myth of racial democracy that sustains much of the racist structures present in the country today.
At various times, he directed the oldest continuously circulating newspaper in Latin America and in the Portuguese language, the Pernambuco Daily, and gathered significant influence through publishing. In 1865, a few months after the end of the Civil War in the US, a newspaper from the same region, the Liberal Academic (‘O Liberal Acadêmico’), published an outcry in support of the abolition of slavery in Brazil, praising one of the most notorious American abolitionists, John Brown, and denouncing rampant lies in public discourse. The copy was not well-preserved, but we see his name in context and an interesting dialogue between the abolitionist movements of the two countries.
(“In the United States, Christian civilization and the barbarity of pagan times fight in a cyclopean struggle. They say it is a political issue that is being resolved there. Lie! […] John Brown died […] fact of the reduction of man to […] brute, and the even bigger scandal […] of human cattle farms.”
“What big idea, that the enemies of intelligence have not laughed at?"
“The extinction of slavery is perhaps... it is undoubtedly even more urgent for Brazil, and if it aspires to a place among civilized nations it must hasten it.")
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The history of abolition and mass media sets the United States and Brazil apart from their neighboring countries. Hispanic America’s history of printed media dates back to the 16th century and is marked by a uniquely repressive Spanish colonial rule. There were high rates of illiteracy, displaced indigenous languages, paternalistic institutional structures, and poverty. All of which delayed the production of mass news media, even though the technology — the printing press — arrived in Mexico City before anywhere else in the Americas. Mary A. Gardner explains that “machinery generally is less controversial than ideas […] Freedom of the press and the search for truth then become dangerous topics”. Which is why Hispanic countries advanced technologically, while their valuable political media production existed in fewer quantities and at much higher risks. Even so, a consistent strategy to counteract the lies disseminated by mainstream outlets has been to produce independent media. The same technological platform that disseminated lies, whether it is the printing press or Facebook, is used to denounce those lies.
In the 1880s, the pushback against false and sensational newspapers and their reporting of the Haymarket Riots in Chicago was to use the same technology to produce worker-lead newspapers and pamphlets. The most inspiring organizer and participant of the Haymarket Riots, Lucy Parsons, passionately produced countless revolutionary reading material for years. If there was a print shop, she would write and publish extensively. If there was a factory, she would make an anarchist union. If there was a wagon, she would stand on it and proclaim her vision for emancipation. She participated in a resistance movement that was incapable of separating racism, capitalism, and the state. And after John Brown’s death, she oversaw a new Black liberation movement arise and lead itself.
(Illustration by Mirna Wabi-Sabi, featuring Lucy Parsons and John Brown.)
“John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave. But will his spirit lie there moldering, too? Brutes, inhuman monsters — you heartless brutes — you whom natures forms by molding you in it, deceive not yourselves by thinking that another John Brown will not arise.”
- Lucy Parsons, April 1892
This woman, born in the early 1850s from an enslaved mother and possibly enslaver father, called racists ‘full of shit’ on national news. Change was so urgent to her, she would watch cresting waves and mull over the unbearable stillness of things. Inspiring and important as she was, her contributions to political discourse border the abyss of obscurity.
We, too, are as susceptible to obscurity. Not in spite of or because of modern technology. Just because “history is but a fable agreed upon” (Napoleon). Our posts, hashtags and threads will dissipate into the digital void as we begin to see ourselves as a generation that experienced an overflow of personal visibility, got too excited and overindulged. And overindulgence is indifferent to change just as Social Media is indifferent to Social Justice. Nowadays, it seems that to attribute a revolutionary nature to a technology is to depreciate our revolutionary potential as social beings, even with all its complexities.
Anthropomorphism is meant to enhance our perceptions of humanity, not undermine it. Which is why attributing the human quality of revolutionary to a technological object must be done carefully. When Edgar Allan Poe portrays the mansion in The Fall of the House of Usher as alive, he exacerbates the reality of human bodies that are dying. It is not a surrealist anecdote about a building, it’s a visceral portrayal of human isolation and mortality. So, when Poe witnessed the birth of a new technology, the Anastatic Printing, he described it as revolutionary to exacerbate the power of creative writing, and the importance of true authorship.
“[W]hile Lithography opened the way for a very agreeable pastime, it is the province of Anastatic Printing to revolutionize the world.”
- Edgar Alan Poe, April 1845
This new technology revolutionized the world less in terms of technique, and more in terms of the human approach toward intellectual production and autonomy. Copies were made faster, cheaper, and easier than ever before, inspiring writers to self-publish handwritten works and to explore a new landscape of “original conception.” But Allan Poe points out that “stereotyping” information cheaply and easily introduces an urgent need for international copyright laws. One century and a half later, we no longer use this method for copying, but we still engage with concerns surrounding unfettered reproduction of works and intellectual property.
Another example of the relationship between technology and revolution is Marina Amaral’s recent work of colorizing Alberto Henschel’s 19th century photos. This German photographer used the most modern photographic technology available in the mid-1800s to photograph Black people in Brazil before the abolition of slavery. Last year, this Brazilian artist used the most modern photo editing techniques and software to give his images color. The result is a breathtaking encounter with ourselves. The eyes of the photographed pierce the viewer with the reality of what was, and what still is, a profoundly unjust society, where overwhelming beauty and strength persevere.
Technology can aid our understanding of things, as it can impede us from relating to our history. Seeing old photos in color makes them more relatable because we are used to seeing ourselves depicted that way. So, while the colorizing technology aided our understanding, it also means that without it, our history felt further away from us. Photo editing software, or 19th century photographic equipment are volatile vessels for the timeless vision of an artist and the powerful presence of our ancestors. The Individual in the Social Network is distanced from the gruesome reality of the past. Most would say that’s a good thing, although it doesn’t ensure gruesome realities are a thing of the past.
On one hand, Social Media might bring atrocities to light and cause an uproar for Social Justice, but on the other, it’s even more effective in distracting us from them and ensuring the uproar is sterile. Even putting blame on either one would be giving this relationship too much credit. Going viral isn’t the goal, it’s an ineffective first step towards emancipation, if one at all. When Facebook becomes our children’s MySpace, there will be other inventions and tools to aid us in our pursuit of a better world. And we mustn’t forget where we came from, and the lessons from this journey. What is paramount is to never lose sight of what we are fighting for. The rest is ephemeral.