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On Instagram, #BlackoutTuesday Showcased The Power of Social Media, But Created a Problem Too

Vishal Mathur

Chances are, if you scrolled your Instagram feed in the past 24 hours, you would have realized the power of the black colour. No, Instagram wasn’t down. Your internet wasn’t the reason you were seeing black squares as images posted with tweets and posts. This was the power of the #BlackoutTuesday and #BlackLivesMatter hashtags that have been rightfully dominating conversation online following the 46-year-old Minnesota resident George Floyd’s death while in police custody. The world cannot forget that shocking video, recorded by onlookers which shows one of the officers pinning down Floyd on the ground, with his knee on his neck. In one of the videos, Floyd can be seen pleading with the officer, repeatedly saying he cannot breathe. The knee remained on the neck for 8 minutes and 28 seconds, according to media reports. Floyd is no more. The world is angry. Rightly so. And social media allows everyone to participate.

At the time of writing this, #BlackLivesMatter had 17.5 million posts on Instagram, while #BlackoutTuesday has already clocked 28.2 million posts. Black grids dominating your screen. Perhaps trying to tell you about the value of life. Both hashtags have gained incredibly traction on Twitter as well. Pretty much everyone you may be following on either social network may have posted a message with either of the hashtags. Your friends, colleagues, acquaintances, Liverpool football club, Mercedes-AMG, FIFA, Apple Music, celebrities and pretty much everyone else who has access to social media. It wasn’t limited to any specific community of celebrities or creators, but the message was shared from across the spectrum. Former first lady Michelle Obama, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Beyonce, Cardi B, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Priyanka Chopra, Lewis Hamilton, Gareth Bale and Jadon Sancho are just some of the global celebrities and superstars who have weighed in on the conversation, one that is tearing America apart as we speak.

If you open Apple Music right now, you will be greeted with the #ShowMustBePaused and #BlackLivesMatter hashtags. The only new content currently available is a playlist simply titled For Us, By Us and the album art is a black square image with 06.02.2020 embossed on it. The music in the playlist is by black artists, including Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Kanye West, Nas and 2Pac, to name a few.

A lot of credit for the music industry participation in #BlackLivesMatter must go to two black women, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, who started a website TheShowMustBePaused.com and urged the industry to support the black community. The music industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry that has profited predominately from Black Art. Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and success of Black people accountable,” reads the mission on the website. The results have been tremendous for the efforts put in by Thomas and Agyemang.

Apple Music #BlackLivesMatter

TikTok, the incredibly popular social network, lent its support by keeping its Sound page silent. “This is not a day off, but a day of action. There will be no playlists or campaigns on TikTok's Sounds page today out of respect for the movement. The effect that Black music, artists, and creators have on TikTok is undeniable. TikTok is proud to be a platform and community where Black music thrives, talent is discovered, and creativity flourishes,” the company said in an official statement. In fact, TikTok is flagging off the Black Music Month with special programming to celebrate and highlight Black artists' contributions to popular and trending music on the social media platform.

Spotify, the most popular music streaming apps says, “We will also amplify Black voices by further leveraging our long-standing Black History Is Now hub, which will serve as a central resource and home for music, playlists, and podcasts like Code Switch, You Had Me at Black, and Higher Learning with Van Lathan and Rachel Lindsay. The hub will also feature several playlists, including Black History Salute and We Shall Overcome. The Black Lives Matter playlist, which was updated for Black Music Month in June, will also be featured.” Spotify also added an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence to playlists and podcasts on its platform.

What everyone probably didn’t realize is that while amplifying the hashtags on social media, they were actually creating a problem.

#BlackLivesMatter Activists

Anthony James Williams, an activist and a sociologist had probably been seeing the black grids rapidly populate the hashtags on social media. He finally took to Twitter to say, “stop posting black squares under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Instagram. it is intentionally and unintentionally hiding critical information we are using on the ground and online.”

Kenidra Woods, a Black Lives Matter activist and a mental health advocate, also posted, “It has come to my attention that many allies are using #BlackLivesMatter hashtag w black image on insta. We know that’s it no intent to harm but to be frank, this essentially does harm the message. We use hashtag to keep ppl updated. PLS stop using the hashtag for black images!!”

The way hashtags work is that every time a user posts anything with a hashtag, it gets added to the search results for the hashtags. On Instagram, every image gets added to the search results too. The thing is, all the black squares are pushing down the messaging that may actually be holding useful information. “When you check the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, it's no longer videos, helpful information, resources, documentation of the injustice, it's rows of black screens,” says music artist Kehlani in an Instagram story. It is generally how people track updates on an event happening somewhere in the world. Often, for movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, organizers and activists who are closely involved often take pains to ensure the content associated with these hashtags is relevant—and is often used to disseminate information that may otherwise be unavailable on other channels. With an outpouring in this volume, it would be impossible for anyone to keep a check on the hashtag. With black grids populating the hashtags now, that important messaging may get lost.