In a new working paper entitled “And then the Zimmerman Verdict Happens,” Nathan Jamel Riemer discusses the development of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100, the Black Youth Project’s sister, activist organization) amidst developments in new media and a persistently hostile and anti-black racial environment in the United States. The paper, number 3 in a series written for the Youth & Participatory Politics Research Network, considers how new media, including the Internet and social media, enables black youth activism and a new type of “participatory politics”—that is, political behaviors and activities outside of traditional or institutional forms.
Mass media is a crucial component of a social movement, informing the public about crises and protest responses to these crises. Riemer discusses the asymmetric relationship between traditional media and movement actors, explaining that the media benefits most from social movement fodder, while activists have little control over media frames of their work. At this juncture, however, new media as utilized by young black activists, such as the BYP100, may insert race back into the conversation and motivate organization and collective action.
Drawing from scholarship on new media and social movements, Riemer claims that activists like the BYP100 could have more power over the framing of racial crises via social media, as they engage in participatory politics, which he defines as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence” on public issues.
Participatory politics includes a battery of new political acts, including investigation, dialogue and feedback, circulation, production, and mobilization. These processes allow social movement actors to have more control over movement frames and agenda setting. Additionally, the low risks and costs associated with new media, like the Internet and social media platforms, may additionally encourage involvement in participatory politics.
Riemer conducts his study of the BYP100 via participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and by following the organizations’ Twitter page and YouTube channels. What he finds is that in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, as a collective response to the racial crisis at hand, the BYP100 was formed from a group of black queer activists with varying political ideologies and understandings but with mutual interests in and commitments to social and racial justice.
This new organization posted a video expressing their outrage over the injustice surrounding the Zimmerman verdict, as well as their intentions to advocate and organize against white supremacy, police brutality, and unjust legal institutions. Mainstream media organizations, such as Ebony.com, AlJazeera.com, and the HuffingtonPost.com picked up the BYP100’s response and circulated their statement for their online and offline audiences. The video additionally received over 23,000 views.
Riemer further explores the organizations’ use of social media and the Internet and asks BYP100 activists’ opinions of the role of new media in social movement work. In their interviews, activists responded that new media was “critical” to their work and allowed them to spread their message to wide audiences quickly. Riemer writes that new media enabled the BYP100 to swiftly mobilize and frame the Zimmerman verdict from their own perspectives outside of traditional media frames. Riemer notes that the initial mobilization was sustained via both online and offline efforts following the first video response.
Questions remain, of course, about the “enabling” and democratizing assumptions about new media. Riemer writes that many BYP100 activists felt that online activism could also be “fleeting” and unsustainable for social movements and social justice work. Yet, Riemer concludes his paper optimistically, considering how new media facilitates participatory politics and provides new possibilities for social movement and political activity. He writes that in the face of racial crises, new media may provide a platform for “marginalized voices and alternative viewpoints,” which may influence mainstream discourses and collective responses.
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