I was at Pride Toronto, July 2016 when the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter stopped the parade with a sit it. I was actually probably no more than a few minutes walking from the actual sit in, and the Black Lives Matter group had passed where I was watching the parade from maybe only 10 minutes before they staged their sit in.
Here’s the issue though, once the parade stopped I had no idea what was going on, and neither did anyone within earshot of me. It wasn’t uncommon for the parade to slow down or even stop for a minute or two, but after the Liberal’s float had been sitting in front of where I stood for over 10 minutes we began to wonder what the hold up was. I had my phone on me and I checked Twitter. I went to the Pride official twitter account to see if they had tweeted anything about the holdup. Nothing. I checked the pride Toronto hashtags thinking maybe other people knew what was going on and were tweeting about it…again nothing. I scrolled through some tweets to see if any of the news accounts I followed had tweeted something. Nothing. It had been 20 minutes of no movement and I checked the trends for Toronto and nothing caught my eye as a reason for the parade to stop for so long.
My point? I was there actively searching for information about what was going on, on the platform that the group is most active on and remained uninformed. I didn’t find out about the sit in until later in the evening when someone asked me how I felt about BLM stopping the parade. A google search and a few mainstream news articles later I was caught up on what happened but not because of social media or hashtag activism. For every hashtag you seen trending how many do you actually click to find out about what is going on? For every hashtag you see trending how many are relevant to you? How many do you think failed to trend? I found out about the BLM movement from mainstream news, not citizen journalism or social media sources.
To argue the other side of the debate BLM as a whole is still largely the result of effective hashtag activism as well as their marches and protests. And while this particular event failed to reach me through those channels that doesn’t necessarily mean that others did not find it because of citizen media. This isn’t to say that the sit in was ineffective, I did find out about it eventually, just not through citizen media. Their most popular tweet about the sit in did earn over 1,000 retweets though. However even these 1,000 retweets can fail to reach people outside of certain networks. (it came across my own twitter but not until later).
While this is just one incident and only my own personal experience I am using this case to question how much power does hashtag activism have to draw people to a cause or inform them. Currently many of us have heard about the North Dakota Pipeline incidents. However I’m sure that many of us only heard about it once the mainstream picked it up. No doubt the mainstream picked it up because of the media and trends generated by the groups but the news story still had to pass through the filter of mainstream media to reach many people in the first place.