In Hashtag Protest, 'Black Twitter' Shows Its Strength

Following the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, many young African-Americans posted pictures of themselves on Twitter under the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. They were protesting the damaging ways in which young black men like Brown are often portrayed in the media. The response demonstrated the scope of what's informally known as Black Twitter, a virtual community of African-American Twitter users.

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Following the shooting of Michael Brown, hundreds of young African-Americans posted pictures of themselves on Twitter under the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. The hashtag was a protest over pictures of Brown used in mainstream media which made him look menacing. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the response demonstrated the scope and power of what's become called Black Twitter.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: After the shooting, NBC News posted the picture of the teen from his Facebook page. Brown is standing in front of a faded brick building, looking down at the camera with two fingers held up in a way that makes it seem as if it's a gang sign. Brittney Gault saw the photo and was offended.

BRITTNEY GAULT: It almost looks like this person should've been hunted down. He doesn't look like someone that is the sweetheart boy that just graduated high school who had a reputation in his community for being a good guy.

SYDELL: In response, young African-Americans posted pictures of themselves meant to challenge the menacing ways in which young African-Americans are often portrayed the media. Gault, who's a graduate student at Depaul University, added a photo.

GAULT: My dad was teaching me at the time how to shoot a revolver (laughter). That was something new for me. So I was having fun, but at the same time it can look like I'm just a trigger-happy black girl.

SYDELL: Many posted two photos - one in which they look tough and another in which they looked unthreatening. A young man showed himself in a black T-shirt with two fingers out in what looks like a gang sign next to one in which he's in a military uniform reading a book to children. Gault says they were trying to show NBC that images can shape perception.

GAULT: What we see can contaminate juries. What we see can contaminate public opinion.

SYDELL: NBC stopped using that photo of Michael Brown. This is the latest example of what many have dubbed Black Twitter. Twitter is significantly more popular among young African-Americans than whites, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. Dr. Kimberly Ellis, who's working on a book about Black Twitter, says it's a place where African-Americans can have an open national dialogue.

KIMBERLY ELLIS: The understanding is that we are going to speak unabashedly about our experiences and we are going to assert ourselves, our humanity, our culture.

SYDELL: Ellis says Black Twitter is a growing force. As far as back as 2009, Black Twitter was responsible for a campaign that got the canceled show "The Game" back on the air. That happened following an online protest over how few good programs there are about black life. More recently, when one of the jurors in the Trayvon Martin case was given a book contract, Black Twitter erupted in anger, and the publisher canceled the deal.

ELLIS: Our stories are given more credence and are used as a source far more now than ever before. And that's a wonderful, wonderful thing.

SYDELL: Though it isn't a replacement for the kind of activism of the old civil rights movement, Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal says the hashtag response to Michael Brown's shooting shows that technology makes it easier to respond.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: They effectively organized around this hashtag in a short period of time, that if we were talking about traditional civil rights organizations, it might take them 10 days.

SYDELL: One thing that Gault, Ellis and Neal stress is that participation in Black Twitter is open - anyone can take part. And many say they are seeing that it's initiating a dialogue - not just with media, but with people of other backgrounds and races. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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