The relationship between governments and citizenry is often tainted with mistrust, suspicion, and even anger. People can feel aggrieved by governments and their actions and feel frustrated when their grievances are not addressed. Grievances may comprise social, political, economic, and environmental issues that are held dear by a significant population segment. Often when the citizenry have exhausted all forms of airing their grievances using the available communication channels, they may resort to social movements in the hope of moving their governments to action and triggering nationwide reforms. However, not many social movements succeed, despite appearing to be well orchestrated and organized. The reason for their failure ranges from ruthless suppression by law enforcement agencies to pervasive apathy among the targeted participants. Black Lives Matter (BLM) is one social movement that has enjoyed unprecedented success. From its humble beginnings in the United States back in 2013, BLM has become a global movement that decries systematic racism that is often experienced by Blacks and people of color across the world. Social movements such as this have succeeded because they address a universally recognized social challenge, mobilize many people sharing the problem, and have access to enormous resources that fuel and propagate it. The political science argument presented here is that social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, have remained global and active for so long because they have transformed to address political issues that are recognized by different groups of people around the world. Their ability to resonate with the different political issues across a wide spectrum of people has fueled them, making them relevant even as the political issues change over time.
Many scholars have tried to explain what social movements are using concepts and theories. For instance, Hawlina et al. (31) provide a general definition of social movements by calling them an organized challenge to authorities holding power, or cultural beliefs and practices. These rebellions can occur at local or national and transnational levels depending on the breath of issues being addressed. They noted that social movements employ diverse tactics, ranging from demonstrations and strikes, to rallies, petitions, and protests, and can be centralized or diffuse. However, Hawlina et al. (31) noted that human imagination was the key driver of social movements because people use their mental faculties to explore the state of things, comparing how they have been and how they should be in the future. They noted that imagination helps people to construct representations collectively, spurring some form of action. Shafi and Ran (2) argued social media has established itself as initiation site for social movements although it highlighted the subtle differences between social movements, protests, and collective action. Similarly, Van Dyke and Taylor (492) explain that social movements are initially intentioned to produce political changes. However, they argue that social movements also produce cultural outcomes when they influenced the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of people. The authors noted that social movements produced cultural changes using the cultural content they produced, the actions of non-movement actors such as the public and media, and the institutional changes they instigated.
The organization and mobilization of social movements have intrigued many scholars and inspired spirited studies. Thomas et al. (214) explained that there is a psychological reason why social movements form by noting that people coalesce around a social movement if they have a cause they are committed to that aims to correct a wrong and when they believe that they can succeed in changing an undesirable situation. They also acknowledged that social movements had taken a global scale in recent times, as had been demonstrated by the Occupy movement, Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter movement. They argued that all that was required to ignite a global social movement was to have a sensational image or news item go viral over social media.
Consequently, social media has been acknowledges as being instrumental in contemporary activism and social movements. For instance, Mundt et al. (1) investigated the effect of social media on social movements, and particularly on their ability to broaden the impact of such movements. They acknowledge that social media was more beneficial than detrimental to social movements. Social media helped to build connections and coalitions, mobilize participants and resources, and intensify different narratives about a social issue. In the same vein, Thomas et al. (215) revealed that the global sympathy for Syrian and Iraqi refugees was instigated by disturbing images of a Syrian child, which went viral over social media in 2015. From a different perspective, De Genova (1765) explored the effect of Black Lives Matter movement in Europe, in the midst of a migration and refugee crisis. He argued that Europe was experiencing an unprecedented phenomenon in which European borders and identity were being questioned amid heavy flows on displaced human beings. He noted that racial tensions characterized the interaction on of nationals and immigrants, particularly because they felt that the refugees were consuming resources they did not help produce and accumulate. Therefore, there were social movements that countered the sympathy felt for refugees, which produced a counter-narrative against immigration.
Other studies have explained the globalization of social movements, courtesy of technological advancements. Haslanger (4) uses the critical social theory to explain the motivations behind social movements and confirms that a common and shared idea regarding an oppressive situation is instrumental in spurring a social movement. For instance, he traces the evolution of the force behind racial protests to the evolution of slavery through segregation, and the current felonization, mass incineration, economic marginalization, and stigmatizes endured by the African American community in the United States. Similarly, some issues were cross-cutting and of global concern, causing the globalization of social movements (Almeida and Chase-Dunn 202). Almeida and Chase-Dunn (203) gave the opposition towards Iraq’s invasion, global trade, and carbon emissions as some examples of the issues addressed by the global social movements. From this precept, Poell and Van Dijck (546) explained that social movements has gone global because to the culture of sharing, in which networks were established and solidarity was forged around an issue using social media. Besides, controversial issues appeared to gain a life of their own thus reducing the need to formal leadership in social movements. Poell and Van Dijck (547) argued that political protests were often instigated by a small group of citizens with limited resources but intense social media activity. Besides, social media platforms afforded individuality and anonymity to activists and protesters, thus invigorating the social movements encountered today.
Social movements in contemporary society experience diverse challenges that may jeopardize their success. However, others like Black Lives Matter have managed to overcome several hurdles to enjoy unprecedented success. The reason for this success is largely the ability of the movement to address a cross-cutting social, cultural, and political issue that affects many society members in one way or another. For this reason, a movement that initially focused on people of African descent has expanded to include all those that are non-White. In other words, a movement that started as a protest against police brutality has morphed into a disapproval of White Supremacy. This has invited peculiar participants, such as Whites, who identified with a cause that was exclusively promoted by the Black community. While this is an unprecedented turn of events, which is opposed by some Black activists, who question how Whites can genuinely oppose a social order that has benefited them the most. In other words, the support of Black Lives Matter by Whites is viewed with suspicions, yet it has helped the political issue receive global attention.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic threatened to slow the momentum of social movements because of the public health protocols that discouraged large congregations of people to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. Large social movement street protests are not compatible with social distancing guidelines. Consequently, to remain compliant with the Covid-19 social distancing protocols, protestors intensified their social media presence to lobby for social justice and against institutionalized racism. Therefore, the predicted spikes in Covid-19 cases and deaths because of mass protests in urban areas did not occur because people stayed indoors without reneging on their calls for institutional change (Dave et al. 3). The argument presented for this occurrence in that many people avoided attending the protests physically because of the fear of contracting Covid-19 and being entangled in possible violence. Similarly, the negative effects of social media found deliver unintended outcomes, especially in the age of fake news and misinformation.
Nonetheless, despite the threats from Covid-19, Black Lives Matter movement has gone international. For instance, the Black Lives Matter Foundation is an organization seeking to eradicate White supremacy and violence against Black communities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada (McCoy 464). In addition, BLM is now being used to address the immigration crisis in Europe (De Genova 3). This means that its cause has expanded from the initial protests against police brutality against African Americans to racial discrimination across the world. Besides, these protests occur in countries that expose democracy and uphold the freedom of speech and expression, such as the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union member countries. They are unlikely to take place in countries with authoritarian regimes because they are would be met with extreme force from the war enforcement agencies and militaries, in some cases. Besides, social media has proved beneficial to the endurance of the social movement.
The acquitting of George Zimmareman in 2012 from a fatal shooting case involving an African American teenage instigated the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, a call for action over Twitter to protest against police brutality and racial violence against African Americans. However, the gruesome death of George Floyd in the hands of a police officer saw countrywide riots ignite across the United States in 2020 involving between 15 and 26 million participants. Since then, the participation rate in this social movement has fluctuated minimally, with DeAngelis (1) reporting 55% of adults and 83% of African American adults supported the movement. Williamson et al. (2) explained that the protests against the American criminal justice system were concentrated in areas there the contact between law enforcement and Blacks was disproportionately high. Their study revealed that the Black Lives Matter protests were prevalent in places where the police had killed many black people and the community there was more aggrieved compared to locations with less police killings of Black people.
However, what is surprising is the support from White Americans, considering that the social movement is against White supremacy as well. Powell and Kelly (45) revealed that the number of White Americans supporting the Black Lives Mater movement was increasing. They view these participants as risk-takers rather than benevolent supporters because they go against the dominant White culture and worldview.
The role played by social media in social movements, and particularly in Black Lives Matter, has been evidenced extensively in literature. For instance, Richez et al. (1) social media helped marginalized groups to articulate their concerns and raise awareness about the marginalization that they faced. Mundt et al. (11) demonstrated that social media had the potential of scaling up social movement undertakings through mobilizing resources, making meanings, and building coalitions. They argued that the digital spaces afforded by social media created new opportunities for developing collective identities. However, they warned that social media use in political activism could produce unintended outcomes such as counter-protests and physical endangerment to the activists when confronted by those of contrary perceptions or avid protectors of the status quo. The collective identity concept was expounded by Williamson et al. (9) when they revealed that Black Lives Matter protests were more prevalent in cities where many residents identified as members of Democratic Party. However, Brünker et al. (2363) found that Twitter-mediated social movements exposed the different motives of the activists, ranging from branding and self-interests, to attention-seeking and calling to action. Similarly, Greijdanus et al. (53) revealed that it was not clear whether online activism promoted or stifled off-line action although their results revealed a strong correlation. Nonetheless, the found that the internet played two significant roles in social movements; on one hand, social media helped to raise awareness of pressing issues, marshal people, and set the discourse agendas, while on the other hand, it could be used to suppress unwanted actions, misinform participants, and polarize activists. Therefore, the management of social media use for social movements was critical to maximize benefits and minimize the detriments.
Large and global social movements, like Black Lives Matter provide a good case study on the globalization of activism and social movements and the role of social media. The Black Lives Mater movement has succeeded on the global stage because of its adaptability to the issues it addresses. Different locations across the world have customized the protestation themes by making them attentive to the unique political problems being experienced. For instance, while police brutality is the central theme in the United States BLM protests, immigration is the contested issue in the European versions of BLM. Similarly, BLM movement has transformed the social movement and activism culture by demonstrating that protests do not require a leader figure or centralized organization because the networks formed propel the activism and protests autonomously. Individual protestors share information over social media, contribute to the controversial narrative by expressing themselves and cementing their collective identities, which motivates their voluntary participation.
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