Online Together: Violence, Networks, and Resistance
CW: Racist Violence, Death
2021 marks another year of ongoing racist violence toward Black, Indigenous, and many other racialized communities of colour. The early months of this year featured an increase in anti-Asian racism followed by police violence against Black and Brown youth. More than ever, social media platforms are almost instantly circulating videos and images of violence to our handheld screens, which so many of us depend on for everyday news, community connection, and daily work thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Within minutes of facing an attack by a white anti-Asian assailant, 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie’s cries and blackeye circulated on social media through a witness’ single tweet. And in April, police body camera footage from both 15-year-old Adam Toledo’s death in Chicago and 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant’s death in Columbus were uploaded to YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, and other platforms. By simply opening and loading any form of social media, we can find (unwanted and unwarranted) videos or commentary about the latest violence toward Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC).
At the same time, these online platforms are fostering increasing virtual conversations and networks of resistance between BIPOC communities. We’ve seen Instagram infographics, YouTube series, and Facebook posts providing commentary, connections, and community online. Platforms like Twitter and TikTok have especially become virtual spaces for expressing emotion, doing activism, and extending allyship.
This kind of online activity is not new. It follows a line of Black and Indigenous online movements such as the #SayHerName campaign or the #IdleNoMore movement. But current anti-racist hashtag movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #StopAsianHate are being taken up by all kinds of virtual networks and sites, including dating social networking apps like Tinder and businesses on Instagram all in an aim to signal their so-called allyship.
With so much being shared online, what does it mean to turn to online social networks for activism and allyship now, in real time, as violence and resistance persist? Put simply, I guess what I am asking here is: how are we online together? And how might we practice our own networks of relation online more justly?
As someone interested in all sorts of networks of relation, I am trying to think about how our webs of connection manifest online, especially when it comes to activism and allyship. For example, in light of the attacks against Asian women in Atlanta, I tweeted a short thread at 12:30am about anti-Asian racism and misogyny. My tweets joined a chorus of other Twitter users that night, far beyond my own followers and friends. This online practice of speaking to the web is very much part of how social media works. Digital media scholars are talking about how social networking sites (SNS), social media platforms, and digital applications are built to prioritize a user’s engagement with:
their offline social community through online modes
with online strangers through public platforms.
Starting in the late 1990s, this emphasis on engagement with others meant that online spaces like SixDegrees, Friendster, Myspace, Facebook, and Tumblr became (web)sites for sharing opinions, forming social identities, and interacting with an ever-growing list of connections. In 2021, we continue to use apps like Twitter, Tik Tok, and Instagram as places to interact with like-minded friends and strangers. These connections across online spaces are about our networks in a very public sense. Even with private profiles or exclusive friend lists, we are going online in ways that invite others to interact with our pictures, musings, and life updates. In digital media studies, we call these kinds of digital forums networked publics since they provide different kinds of networks for their users. Some of these networks are of digital elements— users, blogs, and algorithms. We engage with web technology and its components. But, by using social media, we also connect with a network of relations — people, practices, and posts. So, networked publics “allow [for] people to gather for social, cultural, and civic purposes and they help people connect with a world beyond their close friends and family” through digital tech networks of algorithms and wires (boyd 39). In the case of activism and allyship, rage tweets, statistical infographics, and violent videos have become part of a large, messy (and in my experience, sometimes wonderful) constellation of networks through re-tweets, shares, and copy-links. This influx of public conversation around and interaction with racist violence and social justice is important, especially as more and more hate gets vocalized on the racist sides of these online spaces.
Yet I think that sometimes these online activist and allyship constellations (that do good anti-racist work) get overhauled or appropriated by a number of people, platforms, and businesses. So many apps make statements about, (or make changes to their platforms in response to,) the latest violence to cross their users’ feeds. For instance, when I clicked on Tinder (a dating-oriented social networking app) in March 2021, it opened with a “Stop Asian Hate” message from the company that celebrated its own so-called demonstration of anti-racism. My problem here is that often these platforms are part of the very violence that online users are speaking about, whether these platforms are: fostering racist user groups, trending racist content creators, taking part in gentrification, policing BIPOC users through new user-agreements, profiting off of surveillance, deleting anti-racist activist posts, participating in technocapitalism, or failing to censor violent videos. Since many of the platforms that we use to do activism and allyship are complicit in racist violence, I think we need to shift our understandings of what being online means for each of us and how our interactions across online networks may take part in violence (and violent social media).
So again: how are we online together? And how might we practice our own networks of relation online more justly? I have a lot of ideas in response to these two questions. But as a Sherman Centre graduate resident, right now, I am trying to re-think being online through constellations of community. I’ve spent the last eight months building community with a group of (mostly) strangers online. Even though we meet bi-weekly in Zoom meetings, we also do a lot of our community-building work across a number of social media platforms.
We tweet at each other almost weekly.
We follow each other on Instagram.
We DM each other to check-in.
We send email threads about future Tik Tok collabs.
Our networks of relation have exclusively been digital, across that messy constellation online networks. And these interactions within this online community that we’ve built do tend to surround the very topics that I opened this blog post with. Being online together – publicly or privately – requires an understanding of how digital networks are very much relational.
So how can we be in good relation online? Well, my experience as part of the Sherman Centre graduate residency has demonstrated to me how important community is in our, as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls it, “constellations of co-resistance” (211). For Simpson, these constellations center relations between queer and trans BIPOC while also refusing to center whiteness in our resistance to “settler colonial realities,” in the aftermaths of slavery, the impacts of diaspora, and the reign of white supremacy (231). By shifting our focus to online coalition networks grounded in community and relation, we might better approach, as Simpson does, these complexities of activism and allyship when “the Internet and digital technologies have become a powerful site for reinforcing and amplifying settler colonialism” (222).
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