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‘Social media for social change’: Speakers show how to advocate online at virtual McDaniel College event

Three national speakers on Monday explained to a virtual audience how social media can be used to advocate for underrepresented groups during a McDaniel College Martin Luther King Jr. Day event.

Participants during the “Social media for social change” Zoom event heard from Vanessa Mbonu, NAACP’s digital director; Maybe Burke, core trainer and core social media coordinator for the Transgender Training Institute; and Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, who explained how Black people, the transgender community and sexual assault survivors can benefit from equitable representation in personal and professional social media posts.

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Mbonu noted the killings of Black individuals Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020 and the impact on social media. Companies took to platforms such as Twitter to acknowledge racial inequality, but these actions revealed not everyone knows how to be effective when posting about the topic.

A fashion brand called Pretty Little Thing posted a picture of two hands holding one another. The hands were supposed to represent a white person and a Black person; however, the shade was darker than a realistic hand of a Black person and was “reminiscent of blackface,” Mbonu said.

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She also posted a screenshot in which Zoom tweeted in June: “We know this post won’t fix the issues, but we want to make our stance clear. We are with you.” The company added a black square to the post and #blackouttuesday. Mbonu called the post “nonchalant” and said the audience would not know what Zoom was talking about if it hadn’t been for timing and the popularity of the hashtag at the time, which was organized as a collective action to protest racism and police brutality.

“If you’re going to be vague … just don’t post anything,” Mbonu said.

She used sporting goods company Reebok and shoe manufacturer Vans as positive examples. Reebok posted on its social media accounts, “Without the Black community, Reebok would not exist. America would not exist.” And Vans urged customers to shop from Black-owned businesses and to donate to Black organizations.

Mbonu said those were good examples of understanding their audiences, and their authenticity is what made the posts successful.

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Burke explained how she used her personal Instagram to uplift transgender people of color. Although her posts were about human rights, she wanted to switch up her content in June to effectively acknowledge the racial injustice happening in the country.

One post highlighted nine Black queer people she followed on social media, and another was an infographic that read, “To white people who just joined the Black Lives Matter movement, welcome, we’ve been expecting you.”

However, Burke said she learned people did not know who the information was coming from since she wasn’t posting her face as much. People assumed she was Black because she was posting about anti-Blackness. She then decided to integrate her posts, so her profile showed a mix of infographics and selfies.

Through her social media experience that summer, she said she learned a lesson.

“There’s a difference between speaking up for somebody and speaking over somebody,” Burke said.

Burke added there’s a way to amplify others on social media. One way is re-sharing their posts. She said people should not have to be an advocate for their own communities, and it’s important for people to follow multiple individuals in a community since one size doesn’t fit all.

Palumbo shared with the 70 participants in Monday’s event that an online community can help promote survivors of sexual assault, but it can also hurt them.

She noted that everyone knows someone who has experienced sexual violence, or unwanted sexual contact, whether they know it or not. She also acknowledged the viral Me Too movement in 2017 that increased sexual assault awareness online, though it was started in the early 2000s.

Palumbo said stereotypes and misconceptions about sexual assault run deep and an online community “influences why we see a lot of victim-blaming content.”

Asking why a survivor did not report an assault or accusing them of false reporting is an example. She pointed to media headlines that dismiss a sexual assault as a scandal or call the survivor an “accuser.”

Palumbo said sexual assault has a disproportionate impact, and survivors who are transgender, queer, people of color, have a disability, men, non-English speaking, homeless and incarcerated are some of the populations often left out of the public dialogue.

She said social media should be used to promote the survivors as well as spread messages of consent and respect. People should speak out against offensive jokes and believe survivors, she said. When talking about sexual assault, Palumbo said it’s important to use words carefully and avoid victim-blaming and refocus the accountability on those who committed the abuse.

And when survivors choose to tell their stories, respect their privacy and use phrases like, “You did nothing wrong,” “I’m here for you,” “Thank you for telling me” and “You are not alone,” Palumbo said.

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