Last week, #BlackoutTuesday started out as a day for non-Black allies to amplify Black voices and acknowledge the ongoing protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. But as the message went viral, it had the opposite effect: The black squares took over social media and drowned out vital information.
The original initiative, #TheShowMustBePaused, began as a protest against racism and inequality in the music industry, and encouraged Black people to take time for their mental health and non-Black allies to have difficult conversations about racism with family and peers.
However, as the movement gained steam in Hollywood, the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused fell behind. Instead, music artists and celebrities with huge social followings began posting black squares to their social media accounts on Tuesday with the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday.
Brands and sports teams then joined in. Public relations companies and TV channels also went dark to support protests against the death of George Floyd.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday has been used over 16.5 million times on one large social media platform.
The Digital Sharpie Effect
For some activists, the problem isn’t with the new hashtag. It’s the use of longstanding hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter on today’s black grid photos. They take up coveted space.
Activists and organizers use popular hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter to share important news, dispel misinformation and offer education. “Hashtags monopolize attention and are an archive of information,” says writer Najma Sharif.
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has been used over 15 million times on one platform alone, but now the top and most recent posts are dominated by black boxes. This type of erasure or suppression of information online is known as digital Sharpie. “This is almost worse than misinformation. Now you have no information,” Sharif says.
How to Use Your Feed for Good
If you’re an ally who wants to participate on social media, add in information on your posts that highlight where upcoming protests can be found, where donations can be made, as well as where to find petitions and funds related to Black Lives Matter initiatives, organizers say.
“Only adding a black photo to your page does not help your followers or who that image may reach,” says Precious Jackson, a writer, activist and college student in Pennsylvania. “The caption should include information and where to find it.”
What’s important, according to activists and organizers, is for non-Black allies to refuse to stay silent. Don’t fear misspeaking. Sharif says it’s good that people are “gaining somewhat of a political education — even if that’s Political Education 101.”
Instead, for allies looking to educate themselves, Jackson advises that we share information from trusted Black leaders of the movement, not celebrities with no organizing experience. “Allies who are non-Black should amplify the voices of the Black community. We appreciate their support, but it is only useful when our message gets across,” Jackson says.