Skip to main content
Protest sign L

BA Criminology student Aleesha Kaur Tamber explores the link between recent modern activist movements and social media platforms.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the world into chaos. During this turbulent period, a vast number of social issues have been raised, particularly surrounding the Criminal Justice System. To voice their concerns, people have used activism to challenge the system for its treatment of race, through both the BlackLivesMatter movement and, in light of the Sarah Everard Case, the treatment of women by the police and more broadly, men. In these cases, basic human rights were abused by a system that exists solely to protect and bring justice. From reports of domestic abuse being treated as a private issue, to racial profiling for specific offences, the Criminal Justice System has a prevalent and disturbing history of victimising people through systemic violence, and these cases suggest that it continues to be a harmful perpetrator. At the same time, the effects of the system are exacerbated by the overwhelming presence of prejudice in general society which allows people to be complicit bystanders. Fortunately, people today are more willing to speak up and directly challenge that which is wrong as it occurs, right there and then: in other words, using social media to bring about justice through collective action.

In a globalised and interconnected world, social media provides an avenue to spread awareness and (re)education through the sharing of petitions, support, and stories. Technological advancements mean that more people are in a position to discover knowledge so that information and evidence known among experts is now finding its way into the mainstream. Through this open network of valuable resources, there is an opportunity for people to learn about the importance of these movements, as well as ensure they are not contributing to the social problem.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement was founded in 2013 after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, yet the destructive and unlimiting force of racism in all sectors of society continued to be ignored. The reignition of the movement in June 2020 due to the upsetting death of George Floyd sparked an extensive questioning of both explicit and implicit attitudes on an international level, with resources being available to help aid the movement through learning and listening. Social media posts from the Black community, about their life experiences and what they need from allies, have been crucial for the progress of the #BlackLivesMatter movement because social media offers a platform where marginalised voices can be heard and where supporters can easily be involved, especially during Covid-19 restrictions.

Due to the accessible nature of resources and information, social media is normalising conversations about prominent matters and encouraging people to use their voices positively. This has recently been conveyed in the wake of the sad death of Sarah Everard, which sparked a conversation about the normality of gender-based and sexual violence against women. Spearheaded by survivors using Twitter to share their own experiences and express their solidarity, women called out victim-blaming and demanded that the focus shift to the sexist attitude and behaviour of men. This led to one man asking how men could make women feel safer, a tweet which received 4.8k retweets and 27.9 likes, generating a long but necessary discussion filled with helpful suggestions. Similarly, the hashtag ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ is used to highlight issues of race and justice and to support the broader movement, with it being used on an average of 3.7 million times a day in the peak of the conflict in May-June 2020.

Through hashtags, retweets and likes, critical issues receive heightened visibility, which mobilises social justice movements and places an immense amount of pressure on those in power to make the desired changes. This is particularly evident in the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States where successes of the movement include: the conviction of Senior Officer Derek Chauvin and the arrests of three other officers involved in the death of George Floyd; and police reforms including Breonna’s Law, which places limits on the ‘no-knock’ search warrant that ended her life. In the UK, the movement influenced the launch of a ‘diversity commission’ by London Mayor Sadiq Khan into various memorials and statues, and the removal of television show Little Britain from streaming platforms due to problematic character representations. Whilst there is still a long way to go, achievements such as these demonstrate that even the smallest display of activism, such as retweeting or reading a post, has the potential to make noise.

Social media activism may be more important now than in previous years. Not only has the pandemic constrained the ability to traditionally protest due to concerns for public safety, but more importantly, in March 2021, Parliament passed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This Bill contains a controversial clause that increases the power of police forces ‘to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament’. This is severely problematic because the fundamental principle of activism is to bring awareness to key issues. This often demands an element of ‘disruption’ because these issues are ignored by those in power. Combined with pandemic restrictions, this Bill limits traditional activism and in doing so, endangers freedom of expression and threatens the democracy that is integral to modern society.

In this challenging climate, activism must adjust. Whilst there are problems with social media and it should not be the only source of activism people engage in, it prevents the silencing of conversations and debates, instead encouraging the progress of social justice movements. This makes social media a valuable tool for change. In this past year, the world has shown it can adapt to a more virtual way of life, and campaigns for social issues have, and should continue to, use this to their advantage. With infinite reach, social media has an imperative role in determining the future of activism, one which will hopefully be positive and progressive in a time where society is recognising and prepared to change itself for the better.

Aleesha Kaur Tamber is a BA Criminology student at the University of Birmingham. Currently in her second year, she is enjoying the broad spectrum of the course which has exposed her to a variety of prominent issues surrounding the Criminal Justice System and broader society.