In June, singer and activist Deon Jones was peacefully protesting police brutality when he was shot in the face with a rubber bullet and hit with a baton by Los Angeles Police Department officers, suffering two fractured bones in the back of his cheek.
Last Friday, Jones shared a photo of his injuries that he had posted on Instagram with members of the CU Denver community at the third Social Justice Teach-In, “Whose Black Lives Matter? The Political Influence of Racial Appeals on Instagram. In that raw and unfiltered moment, Jones used social media as a tool to bring about political change.
“To be clear, it is a tool, not the tool, but a tool that allows people to be aware of what is happening,” Jones said during the Zoom event. “When I posted that photo, I was showing what the police had done to me, and not just to me, but to many other protesters whose names we may never know.”
Hosted by the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the Oct. 16 Social Justice Teach-In was the third in an ongoing series of discussions addressing issues facing CU Denver and the broader community. The virtual discussion, which drew 337 people, zeroed in on the topic of social media, which plays an increasingly large role in American politics, and specifically the Black Lives Matter movement.
To better understand the topic, CU Denver invited Dr. Chaya Crowder, assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University in the Department of Political Science and International Relations, and Jones, who is based in Los Angeles, to share their research and experiences with students and university employees. After the presentation, viewers were invited to breakout sessions to dive deeper into the sensitive topics in a safe space.
Influence of Social Media on Race and Privilege Messaging
Literature and studies on the influence of social media and American politics are the basis for Crowder’s latest research, which she shared during the Social Justice Teach-In.
In 2017, she recalled, the Women’s March was reported to be the largest recorded protest in American history. Participants carried signs expressing a range of political messages, from support of political parties to the hashtag “Black Lives Matter.” One protester, Persian-American male activist Amir Talai, went viral on Instagram for carrying a sign stating, “I will see you nice white ladies at the next Black Lives Matter March, right?” calling out women who supported the Women’s March but were less supportive for the Black Lives Matter movement. He received mixed feedback— some Black people were angry, saying as a Black person they couldn’t get away with that sign.
This was in part the basis for Crowder’s latest research in which she studied two hypotheses: 1) whether or not people view racism as an important issue will depend in part on the emotions that they feel after viewing an Instagram post, and 2) white people respond better to a white messenger than a black messenger. She used Photoshop to manipulate four Instagram photos of Black and white women holding signs with one of two messages about race and privilege:
- “I will see you nice white ladies at the next Black Lives Matter March, right?”
- “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it’s not a problem for you personally.”
Crowder surveyed 1,342 white respondents of different gender and political views to determine the influence of the messenger’s race as well as the influence of the message carried on the sign. Among her findings, she found that in certain contexts, the content of the protest messaging may matter more than the race of the protestor, and regardless of the race of the protestor, people responded significantly more negatively to Black Lives Matter than privilege messaging.
“This suggests that in 2017, the invocation of Black Lives Matter may have carried such a strong effect on white subjects that it kind of washed out the effect of the race of the messenger,” Crowder said, adding that public opinion surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement since the inaugural Women’s March has changed significantly.
To expand on the real-life implications of protesting and posting on social media, Crowder introduced Jones.
Social Media as a Political Tool
Over his professional career, Jones has served on the Creative Council at Fair Fight, an organization created by Stacey Abrams to end voter suppression and assure voter elections, and previously served as the national spokesperson at the Campaign for Youth Justice. He’s worked for the office of Joe Biden at the White House and on former President Barack Obama’s TechHire Initiative at Opportunity@ Work.
An artist and longtime creative collaborator, Jones’ was recently featured at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art for his cover of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, inspired by his protesting and subsequent injury in Los Angeles following the death of George Floyd. The powerful video featuring live footage from the protests was played during the Social Justice Teach-In.
When Jones posted the photo of his injuries on Instagram in June, he hoped to bring awareness to the public of the police activity happening at protests in real-time, versus later coverage on prime time. “You have to be approximate to really understand the issues and to understand the problem, and I think for so many people you do somewhat seem far removed if you have never had somebody in your family get killed by the police,” Jones said. “I think seeing me in that capacity brought people closer to the issue.”
The power of this type of public narrative can be seen in history, Jones explained. In the civil rights movement, it wasn’t until four girls were killed in a Baptist church in Alabama, and the nationwide news coverage that ensued, that people wanted to push forward toward passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The difference with social media is how quickly information can be shared, and how the information reaches a different demographic: millennials and young voters. This election season, Jones said, that will make a difference at the national and local level.
“There are connections between these (social media) posts and the decision-makers on your ballot,” Jones said, adding, “The data is clear that young folks between the ages of 18 and 34 are more inclined to vote in this election than ever before.”