Getty Images / Kieran Walsh
Since May 26, demonstrations against anti-blackness and police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd have dominated the headlines. But alongside those efforts, a second front has opened up online, where virtual #BlackLivesMatter activists have armed themselves with memes, music and digital technology to take up the cause.
The recent counter-strikes are a mishmash of internet culture. Twitter searches for #BlueLivesMatter return photo after photo of Squirtle, Smurfs and other blue-faced cartoon characters, rather than the usual pro-police posts. On Sunday, protestors “jammed” Chicago police radio system by playing N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police” and the viral classic “Chocolate Rain.” That same day, K-pop stans (super fans of Korean pop music) responded to the Dallas Police Department’s call for “video of illegal activity from the protests” by flooding their informant app, iWatch Dallas, with a deluge of fancams (videos of performers shot by audience members) – a strategy that was repeated in the days that followed when similar initiatives were launched by police in Kirkland, Washington, and Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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guys download the app and fucking FLOOD that shit with fancams make it SO HARD for them to find anything besides our faves dancing https://t.co/zqjVHLWnZG
— allie 📌 #BLM, ACAB (@YGSHlT) May 31, 2020
“K-pop stans never shy away from this kind of stuff. We’re not afraid to speak out or get political. My entire timeline has been flooded with support for the movement,” says Allie*, a 16-year-old from Texas whose Twitter post advocating for the fancams tactic received more than 100,000 likes. “I wanted to be able to do anything I could to help, and stopping or slowing the Dallas PD down from arresting protestors seemed like a good but harmless idea.”
While playful in spirit and dripping with irony, these digital demonstrations have had real-world effects, helping to thwart police efforts to organise against protesters, and undermining their supporters – even when the odds appear firmly stacked in their favour. The Dallas police temporarily took their app down “due to technical difficulties,” and the City of Chicago has announced its launching an investigation into the scanner jamming incident.
“Activists are always adopting the latest finds in technology because of the simple fact that it’s the only thing that can give them the edge over the far more well-resourced and staffed forces,” says Paolo Gerbaudo, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College in London. “There is an important element of micro coordination going on that, in a way, allows protests these days to be more responsive, more flexible and capable of withstanding police repression.”
The weaponisation of meme culture may feel new, but digital activism is not. Since the advent of the internet, activists have used technology to further their causes, from the net strikes in protest of French nuclear testing in French Polynesia in 1995 (one of the first direct denial of service, or DdoS, attacks); to the use of Twitter as an organising and galvanising tool during 2011’s Arab Spring; to the introduction of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag in 2013, following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin.
But not every act is seen as progressive or effective: A lot of digital activism is still denounced as ‘slacktivism’, with critics dismissing lazy virtue signalling and performative allyship that requires no more than a click of a button. (This was the was one of the charges levelled against the recent #BlackoutTuesday Instagram protests, which actually seemed to hurt the very cause it sought to support.)
But Gerbaudo argues that the influence of these symbolic gestures is impossible to ignore now that social media is at the heart of modern communication. “Saying that digital activism is inconsequential is a bit like saying that in the ‘60s (peace) movement, wearing political T-shirts, or badges or political flags was doing something that was inconsequential,” he says. That is not the case. Movements always have a symbolic element, which is crucial.”
Over the course of the last week, we’ve seen protest tips and tactics move through virtual networks on public platforms, appearing and reappearing on our timelines as activists in different cities and communities like, share and comment on each other’s posts. Allie was first moved to act after spotting a post warning protesters to keep their faces covered to avoid being tracked by iWatch Dallas, and reading spam techniques recommended in the comments. As an immuno-deficient minor with limited funds, she was unable to join a protest because of the threat of Covid-19, so she felt this was one way she could make herself useful to the movement.
“A lot of people who want to do something to help (besides donating or signing petitions) are stuck at home or unable to attend protests,” she says. A creative yet simple method like this is something interesting and easy for people to participate in.”
The response has, so far, been overwhelmingly positive, especially from surprised parties outside the K-pop community: “A lot of people have DMed me because they want me to post something about other portals where police departments are accepting outsider info, out a racist, or just bring awareness to something. I’ve seen several comments or DMs saying something along the lines of ‘I usually hate fancams, but good job’ or ‘Finally K-pop stans are being useful.’”
Along with frustrating police’s attempts to crack down on protests, Wael Eskander, a member of the Berlin-based collective and NGO Tactical Tech, suggests that these meme-based protests are remarkable in that they address not only the issue of police brutality, but also surveillance and police accountability.
“It really is all about an oversight of how authorities are being held accountable, or whether there is any,” he says. “This particular case we’re talking about is one of subversive action, where people have tried to send a message that they are not okay with what (data) is being collected about them or the reason why the police are asking for information.”
By coupling tangible results with energising, shareable stories and symbols that supporters can enjoy and relate to, Gerbaudo explains, these digital protests also help to engender a sense of solidarity and pride among supporters.
“Memes glorify the movement and denounce opponents, like all propaganda. Some heap sarcasm and derision at the actions of the government – at the way in which Donald Trump is attacking protestors or the violence of police – often using humour in order to denounce what is going on,” he says. “In the extremely simplified language we see in memes – through words, through imagery, through comparisons – the message has been dumbed down, but it’s only because it’s been dumbed down that it’s an effective way of capturing a complex phenomenon.”
Of course, no one is suggesting that digital pranks will be enough to bring about widespread systemic change on their own. But then again, as Eskander points out, neither will marches, donations or petitions. Instead, he suggests we look at these actions as part of a range of weapons in the fight against injustice.
“There is no real substitute for the bodies on the ground, but there are ways to to extend their message, to amplify it, to try and bring more people in to affect change with whatever means you have at your disposal,” he says. “There is not just one way or one route.”
*Names have been changed
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