Anthony Williams was up late last night, scrolling through Twitter, when the black squares began to crowd out everything else. By midnight, people were panicking about the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, which had suddenly become flooded with thousands of the empty images. Williams, a sociologist and activist, opened Instagram and saw that nearly the entire grid had gone black.
The posts had completely overtaken the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, “flooding out all of the resources that have been there for the last few years,” says Williams. “It’s really frustrating to have carved out this area of the internet where we can gather and then all of a sudden we see pages and pages and pages of black squares that don’t guide anyone to resources.” Around 1 am on the West Coast, Williams tweeted about it. “Do not post black squares with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. You’re [unintentionally] quite literally erasing the space organizers have been using to share resources. Stop it. Stop.” Then, out of frustration, Williams, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, deleted Instagram and Twitter from their phone.
Social media has played a critical role in organizing against racism and police brutality in the US. Online, anyone can start a social movement; platforms like Twitter and Instagram have made it possible to broadcast messages to massive audiences and coordinate support across cities. Before the mainstream media reported on the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, on-the-ground reports had already spread throughout Twitter. The police shooting of Philando Castile in 2016 was brought to light as soon as his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, broadcast a video to Facebook Live. The #blacklivesmatter hashtag itself originated with a Facebook post by Alicia Garza in 2013, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin.
But the same megaphone that can amplify messages can also distort them. As recent protests have spread across American cities following the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis, organizers have worked tirelessly to share images and information across social media, urging followers to take action. Now, activists say that all those black squares have drowned out the information that matters.
A second hashtag, #BlackOutDay, has also become inundated with images of black squares. The hashtag originated in 2015, as part of a campaign by Tumblr users T’von Green and @MarsinCharge to promote and celebrate black faces on social media. “This was during the time that we’d seen George Zimmerman go free, we were reeling from Eric Garner. For us, that was the first time we were truly reckoning with all of it,” says @MarsinCharge (who asked to be referred to by her handle). #BlackOutDay was meant to be a moment to pause, reconnect with the community, and share selfies celebrating blackness.
There have been more than a dozen #BlackOutDay events since. But now, the hashtag shows mostly black squares, effectively erasing the previous posts. “They’re completely detracting from what we’ve been doing for years,” says @MarsinCharge. On top of that, the rapper T.I. posted about a separate economic boycott on July 7, encouraging followers to withhold money in solidarity with black causes, also using the hashtag #BlackOutDay. @MarsinCharge says that’s great, but it’s also diluting the meaning of the movement she created. “We’re getting the feeling that we are being purposely pushed out of that hashtag.”
No one seems to know why people started using #BlackOutDay to post the black squares, or when the #blacklivesmatter hashtag got tacked on. Originally, the movement began with a completely different hashtag—#theshowmustbepaused—created by Jamila Thomas, an Atlantic Records executive, and Brianna Agyemang of the creative services firm Platoon. “As gatekeepers of the culture, it’s our responsibility to not only come together to celebrate the wins, but also hold each other up during a loss,” they wrote in a message that was widely circulated on Instagram. “Join us on Tuesday, June 2, as a day to disconnect from work and reconnect with our community.”
Artists were encouraged to refrain from posting or dropping new music, using their fame and followings to call attention to the anger, grief, and calls for justice among the black community. Major artists and record labels agreed to participate. Spotify announced that it would add an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence to playlists and podcasts on its platform—the length of time that a Minneapolis police officer pinned Floyd down with his knee on his neck. On their website, Thomas and Agyemang offered links to help the respective families of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as ways to support organizations like the Movement for Black Lives.
Soon, though, the idea spread beyond the music industry. Kylie Jenner posted a black square to her Instagram feed. So did Fenty Beauty, Rihanna’s makeup brand, along with an announcement that the brand would not be conducting business on June 2. “This is not a day off. This is a day to reflect and find ways to make real change,” the company said in an Instagram post. Then it introduced a new hashtag: “This is a day to #pullup.”
By Tuesday morning, thousands of people had begun garnishing their posts with the #blackoutday and #blacklivesmatter hashtags. Thousands of others used #blackouttuesday, or added it to their posts retrospectively, so as to avoid detracting from the information posted to #blacklivesmatter. Still, many have criticized the act of posting the black squares at all. “My Instagram feed this morning is just a wall of white people posting black screens,” the writer Jeanna Kadlec tweeted. “like … that isn’t muting yourself, babe, that’s actually kind of the opposite!”
Activists have also expressed concern at the speed at which the black squares overtook the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. “This really feels like digital protest suppression,” the activist Brittany Packnett wrote on Twitter. In the past, “blackface bots” have been used to push political agendas on social media. Some activists have wondered if tagging the black square posts with #blacklivesmatter began as a coordinated effort to silence them, which other people failed to recognize when they jumped on the bandwagon. (As of Tuesday afternoon, WIRED has not independently confirmed the existence of any coordinated campaigns.)
Williams, who noticed the flood of black squares as early as 1 am on Tuesday, also raised suspicions. “For it to jump from #theshowmustbepaused to #blackoutday to #blacklivesmatter is very, very odd to me,” they say. Whether or not the posts were coordinated or entirely spontaneous, “it’s clear to organizers and activists that this fucked us up,” says Williams. “Five or six years of work, all those resources, all that work and documentation—and now we have millions of black squares?”
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