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Reflecting on allies and space on Tik Tok and Instagram

Anna Dunn, Art Editor

July 24, 2020

Social media has acted as a primary source of information, education, and organization throughout the Black Lives Matter movement since the its inception in 2013. It has been a platform for people to share and promote speakers, books, funds and organizations. Mass participation can create a sense of unity, community, and wide-reaching support, but done ingenuously, it can run the risk of being noise. Adding to a discussion doesn’t always mean you’re listening, and it’s easy to share recommending book lists without any intention to read them for yourself.

The way that we, white allies, engage with social media during times of political organization - but even during our everyday lives - has implications. Many of us are aware of these implications - how am I showing my support? How are the posts I’m sharing signaling that I deeply care about this cause? (And, the nagging fear of every white person, “How do I prove to people I’m not racist? How do I prove it to myself?”)

As we post and interact with social media, I think we should also have something very important in mind: What space am I taking up?

The Great Instagram Blackout at the end of May proved a necessity for this final question, as the trend of posting a black square in solidarity ended up clogging up valuable resource hashtags and entire feeds. Even though it did not replace any of this information, it essentially buried it. (What is important to note is that the Instagram Blackout, which has been planned by two Black women in the music marketing industry, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, was meant to be a focused and industry-specific response to the movement due to the huge influence Black culture has on pop music. What it became was the unfortunate result of the movement being co-opted by white allies with little understanding of the original intention.)

In social media, space is valuable. When we post, we take up space on someone’s feed. As feeds constantly change to allow popular posts to float to the top, social media algorithms are designed to promote posts that seem valuable and popular. The most promoted creators and posts are often white.

In December, the social media version of a child star, TikTok, admitted that its algorithm prioritized videos from white, thin, cisgender and conventionally attractive creators. Creators who were non-white, disabled, queer or fat were suppressed and would be pushed down the line of videos because they were “vulnerable to cyberbullying”. And it’s not just the creator’s appearance. Tiktok’s censorship seems to miraculously pass over the trends that seem to encourage racist statements and rhetoric and instead pick up and shadowban videos with the tags #acab and #fuckthepolice.

On Malcolm X’s birthday on May 19th, TikTok creators banded together to protest censorship in a platform-wide blackout with the hashtag #ImBlack or #ImBlackMovement. Organized by BLM Utah founder Lex Scott, the blackout encouraged Black creators and allies to change their icons to the raised black fist, to follow at least one new Black creator, to unfollow all creators opposed to the movement, and to like, share, and comment on Black creator’s videos in order to drive up their engagement.

Unlike the black square movement on Instagram, this movement put emphasis on creating a space for Black voices. Ally support was not measured by adding to the social media space but by providing unseen support through engagement. Allies joined the Black community to comment, like and share videos to drive up engagement specifically, and exclusively, for Black creators. Just for that day, ONLY Black creators.

The TikTok blackout was a success. Not only did users report their feeds being flooded with only Black content for the day, but they noticed a shift in their algorithm afterward. My sister, who participated in the blackout, said that she saw a noticeable rise in Black creators on her FYP, and that some of the accounts she was following mentioned they had noticed higher sustained engagement afterwards, as well.

The blackout was focused and targeted onto fighting the racist algorithm, the institution itself. The point of the event was not simply a show of support, but a specific raising up of marginalized voices. Hearing about the specific focus of the blackout, and it’s subsequent success pushed me to reflect on how i use social media.

How does the way I use social media take up space? Am I posting a black square that shows support but clogs up vital tags and feed space, or is it a comment that heightens engagement on a creator’s post? Both actions have similar intentions: white allies want to show solidarity and support. But we can see that some actions take space from others, while some actions create space.

Well intentions should still undergo internal criticism and debate before being expressed. Many creators on social media made BLM-themed objects to sell in order to fundraise money to donate to the cause. Beauty gurus posted black-owned makeup haul videos. These are both supportive and helpful, but they still take up space as interesting ways to deserve some evaluation. In most cases, seeing fundraisers by broke college students doing everything they can to help is very admirable. But there are other stores that give me pause. Why do some white creators choose to co-opt black iconography and messaging in order to help rather than pointing their followers to preexisting Black artists who make similar products? Why don’t makeup artists facilitate more story takeovers from Black makeup artists?

We have good intentions, and I’m not saying these responses are wrong. They are forms of support and solidarity. But we, as white people on social media, have got to start being more self-critical of the space we take up on social media. Who could be there instead?

In the meantime, boost engagement for Black creators. Comment, share, like. On every post, create reengagement.

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