Mainstream-media figures often portray social media as a buzzing hive of useless outrage. Thinkpieces present hashtag activism as vanity activism, in which narcissistic pronouncements substitute for actual engagement, and anger is leveraged at best for petty entertainment and at worst for coordinated harassment.
Yet activists themselves often argue that social media is important to their work. DeRay Mckesson, who has emerged as one of a number of leading organizers and activists against police brutality, has spoken on his feed about how vital Twitter is for boosting a movement. When he first drove from his home in Minneapolis—where he works as a school administrator, traveling for protests mainly on weekends—to Ferguson to participate in the protests, Mckesson knew no one; he didn't even know where he would sleep. Facebook networks found him a couch, and social media was vital in connecting him with the community of protestors. Mckesson reports live from protests through Twitter, where his following has ballooned from 800 followers to more than 61,000 since he began his activism. He's also used social networks to raise awareness and to organize, by for example creating a text-message alert that informed thousands the instant the grand jury in Ferguson returned a no-indictment verdict in the Michael Brown case.
I talked to Mckesson about social media, protest, and the connections between the two. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Noah Berlatsky: What role has social-media activism played in the movement against police brutality that started in Ferguson?
DeRay Mckesson: Missouri would have convinced you that we did not exist if it were not for social media. The intensity with which they responded to protestors very early—we were able to document that and share it quickly with people in a way that we never could have without social media. We were able to tell our own stories.