If MLK Had Social Media

By | January 20, 2014

MLKIn honor of the 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, the Windsor Historical Society and Archer Memorial AME Zion Church in Windsor, CT invited me to give a presentation on how social media is changing activism and community building. In particular, the organizers asked me to explore how King might have used social media if it was available when he was alive, taking into account his strong legacy in community building and helping people to peacefully reconcile differing points of view.

Presentation script below.

Good evening everyone. Thank you to Archer Memorial AME Zion Church and the Windsor Historical Society for inviting me here today to talk with you about social media, community building and activism.

Before I became a journalism professor at UConn, I spent three years covering your town as a reporter for The Hartford Courant. One of my favorite features of Windsor, besides Northwest Park, has always been its rich diversity of people and ideas.

So it is fitting for us to be here on the day that we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy in community building and helping people peacefully reconcile differing points of view.

As I thought about how to relate Dr. King’s legacy with social media, the idea that jumped out at me was King’s very gifted ability to communicate and connect with people.

The Reverend made connections on a very personal level. He didn’t sit still. The Nobel Peace Prize website says that in the 11 years between 1957 and 1968, King traveled six million miles and spoke more than twenty-five hundred (2,500) times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action.

All the while, he found time to write five books and numerous articles.

Yes, King was a charismatic leader fighting for social justice and civil rights.

He was also a relentless communicator.

King’s words (and his actions exemplifying nonviolent demonstration) inspired people –- inspired them to connect to each other and motivated them to take action.

So how did MLK’s message spread? Perhaps people read about him in a newspaper or magazine. Or heard a sound byte on the radio or TV. Or they heard by word of mouth from someone influential in their lives – a family member, friend, pastor, teacher. Or if they were lucky, maybe they got to see MLK in person at one of his many public appearances.

Those moved by his messages formed a community. The attention of the world on him created what King called a “coalition of conscience.”

Communities come about through communication — shared experiences, mutual interests, problem solving. The strength of a community depends upon how it interacts.

In the old days, interaction usually meant you had to be physically present with others. But internet technology and social media has inextricably changed that paradigm.

In August 1963, King most famously directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C. of a quarter of a million people.

That’s when he delivered his “l Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

If that event were to happen today in 2014, King could have used social media to interact with and mobilize so many more people.

His message would have been amplified much farther and much faster.

And with social media it is likely his message would also have been distorted and challenged and undermined even more, as well.

For better or worse, social networks are an integral part of how people communicate today. It is how many of us share information and our emotional reaction to information.

What exactly is social media? Tom Standage, digital editor at The Economist, defines it as “an environment in which information is passed from one person to another along social connections, to create a distributed discussion or community.”

Low costs and low learning curve means it is easier than ever for people with common interests to discover each other, share, collaborate and build relationships,. Ties can be forged with others at incredible speed over vast geographical barriers. Interaction through the digital devices introduce us to new ideas and new information, which may lead to trust, and eventually action.

Social networks, like other forms of internet communication, are decentralized -material passes horizontally rather than vertically from an impersonal central source.

Traditional mass media like newspapers and TV are a system of one to many. Repressive governments are the same. Messages emanate from one central source.

But social media is a system of many to many. There is no center.

With an independently networked public, you don't HAVE to go through mainstream media anymore to reach a large audience. Messages can quickly be passed to hundreds of small audiences, person to person.

Reach the right influencers and a message will go VIRAL and potentially reach millions. Social media helps build social momentum.

Now social media is not a perfect communication tool for activism and positive change. Like the printing press or broadcast television, social media works just as well for spreading negative messages widely and quickly at little to cost. The nature of online communication is egalitarian. Digital communication can be repressed by governments well as employed by opposition to motivate their supporters.

The effectiveness and intent of the tool depends on who is using it.

Each semester I remind my journalism students that Internet technology doesn’t make people better or worse. It simply amplifies all that they already are – human beings are capable of being both wonderful and terrible online as well as off.

Internet just makes all that communication archived, searchable and shareable.

If MLK had social media back in 1963 for the March on Washington, I think he could have used it in three ways.

The first as an organizational tool.

1. Form groups and creating discussion
2. Discussion leads to new ideas and trust
3. Trust motivates people to participate in calls action.

“Collective action/information cascade” can drive an idea for a protest out of the online world and into the “real” one.

Social media promotes an active participatory culture – digital communication allows for ongoing communication between participants in a community, keeping the movement and interest going. Without ongoing communication, participation and connection dissolves.

The second way MLK could use social media is for self publishing, as an alternative press and outlet for citizen journalism.

Blogging, Facebook and other digital self-publishing tools provide an outlet for the discontented. You can bypass mainstream media and take a message directly to your audience. The Internet lets anyone with access to a server take the media into their own hands.

An independent and transparent media is essential to a democratic society, and social media have played a defining role in “acting as a check” on repressive government.

These social media networks, designed initially for “socializing,” are now sources for news, information, advertising, propaganda, and data, too.

The third way MLK could have used social media is as a tool for generating awareness both regionally and internationally.

Savvy networking with key influencers – those people in the world so seem to have so many more friends than we do. Get those opinion leaders to share the message and virally influence the thinking and behavior of others.

What social media can do is tap quickly into the power of the crowd. The crowd is made up of all kinds of communities and individuals.

The crowd offers an avalanche of information, misinformation, shock, reaction, confusion, commentary, speculation and sometimes truth.

Social media has played a significant role in connecting people with a common goal of change, a platform to share discontent about the status quo.

Internet is interactive and to be an effective tool, it requires an affirmative action on the part of the users, as opposed to a passive response.

Here are some key moments in Internet-based activism:


Fed up with Congress deliberating on how to deal with Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs took to the web to send a message to Washington: “Censure President Clinton and Move on to Pressing Issues Facing the Nation.”

The simple online petition, dubbed MoveOn.org, was originally sent out to about 100 family members and friends — and within a week had garnered 100,000 signatures. Eventually the petition would receive half a million. MoveOn.org is now a 5 million-member site that allows participants to propose ideas for political change.


NGOs, interest groups and individual protesters against globalization organized via the Internet to protest the meeting of the World Trade Organization. Protesters planned out strategic routes that blocked city streets thrugh a diversified communications network. On the ground, the 50,000+ protesters relied on mobile phones, allowing quick shifts in strategy and taking police by surprise.

A similar activist strategy using mobile phones and texting was employed in the Philippines a year and a half later. When corrupt Philippine President Joseph Estrada was ousted from office in 2001, he complained that the popular uprising against him was a "coup de text.”


2004 – Facebook launches as a way for college students to connect.


Sunday, December 26, 2004: Footage taken by witnesses armed with mobile communication devices was widely disseminated, stirring an immediate worldwide humanitarian effort.


2005 – YouTube gives anyone with the ability to record video the chance to upload and share it to a worldwide audience.


2006 – Twitter launches and squeezes communication into 140 character “tweets” – similar to a SMS/text message.


September 2006, Facebook is opened to everyone age 13+ and over. As of September 2013, Facebook reported having 1.19 billion active monthly users.


September 2007 – Peaceful citizen protests in Burma captured on mobile phones showed the world images of monks being attacked. Footage reached a global online public in a matter of hours, rather than days, quickly moving the world to action.


September 2008 – Citizens using mobile phones document atrocities during demonstrations, then post footage on YouTube. Short video clips of protests by Kashmir’s mainly Muslim population and clashes with Indian security forces, often shot on cellphones and passed from device to device or posted on the Web, have been used by activists to document their own struggle and to inspire more resistance. Read more at http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=d12_1282351979#HkQafEuokkZ2EETF.99


June 2009 -Many people turned their social media profile pictures green in support of the students who were being attacked by their own government.


April 2010 – A call to action on Facebook led thousands of New Jersey high school students to participate in a walkout protest of education cuts by Gov. Chris Christie. More than 17,000 students signed up on a event page on Facebook, which was created by an 18-year-old college student at Pace University.


2010 – Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange became a household name in 2010 when it published disturbing classified footage from the July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike. The video showed Iraqi journalists, among others, killed by snipers in a U.S. helicopter. In July 2010, the site published a collection of classified documents about the war in Afghanistan. WikiLeaks released 400,000 documents called the Iraq War Logs and U.S. embassy cables and documents related to Guantanamo Bay detention camp.


December 2010 – The Arab Spring refers to a series of revolutions and uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa, starting in Tunisia on December 18, 2010. Including: Egyptian revolution, civil war in Libya, uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Oman, Morocco and Jordan, and demonstrations in several other countries.

Much information about each event was disseminated via blogs, Twitter, and Facebook Groups, whether it was for the benefit of those organizing inside the country, or those in the rest of the world trying to get news on what was happening inside of the country.


August 2011 – On August 4, police fatally shot Mark Duggan, a black man and resident of the Tottenham area of north London. Violent clashes between teenage protesters and police led to more unrest, London authorities believed handheld technologies, particularly Blackberry messenger, helped those trying to instigate violence to spread their message. Crazy rumors and misinformation spread on Twitter, too.

On the positive site, many Londoners used Twitter and Facebook to organize clean-ups of vandalized areas of the city.


September 2011 – Remember “We are the 99%?” The disparate folks concerned about income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S took part in Occupy Wall Street protests in NY’s Zuccoti Park and in dozens of other cities across the U.S., including Hartford and New Haven.

“Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter served as central organizing locations for spreading information about Occupy Wall Street. The online activities greatly facilitated these efforts to mobilizing individuals offline. Facebook served as a recruiting tool for bringing in new supporters and getting people to events.”

More information: http://sociology.unc.edu/features/sociologist-tracks-social-media2019s-role-in-occupy-wall-street-movement


Lastly, I wanted to mention STOP KONY. If you recall, this was a short film produced by Invisible Children, Inc, that was meant to draw attention to the atrocities being committed by African cult and militia leader Joseph Kony . The video went viral very quickly, especially among young people and it included a Included a call to action on April 20, 2012 in a worldwide canvassing campaign called COVER THE NIGHT.
But publicized accounts of director Jason Russell’s psychological instability, undermined the movement. Wide criticism of the movie for oversimplifiying the issue seemed to spread just as quickly through social networks as the original film. As a result, interest in the movement largely waned.

Still, by October 2012, the original video had been viewed 100 million times on YouTube.


Internet is interactive and requires an affirmative action on the part of the users, as opposed to a passive response

But as digital technology makes things “easier,” social media also has the opposite effect on some people. The flood of information desensitizes us to it. We have the ability to filter out that which we don’t agree with or find unpleasant. We’re horribly distracted, overwhelmed or just forgetful.

Besides, why get up from behind your device march when you can just ‘like’ a movement on Facebook?



Web search and social media allow us such a high degree of personalization, it is easy to filter out anything we don’t like, we disagree with, we don’t have an affinity for.

In the past, mainstream media tended to expose us to ideas, stories perspectives we may not have sought out on our own.

Now it is incredibly easy to find an echo chamber and stay in it.

Apathy or fatigue can quickly arise when we are inundated with so many messages. Often the loudest voice on a subject can be the most extreme one — distorting public perception on the issue.

Another concern, according to University of California professor Barbara Epstein, is that the Internet “allows people who agree with each other to talk to each other and gives them the impression of being part of a much larger network than is necessarily the case.” She warned the impersonal nature of communication by computer may actually undermine the human contact that always has been crucial to social movements.

Social media technology does not cause revolutions, but like any media, it can play a part in accelerating them (or undermining them.)

“The founders of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube did not create their products with the intent of starting revolutions and ousting dictators.

“Though they may feel they have played a role in the process by providing these vehicles for change, these revolutions begin in the minds and imaginations of those driving them.

[Individuals] choose their tools and their mediums for communication, whether it is print, radio, blogging or just word of mouth, but the strength of a movement lies ultimately in the will for activism.” — Madeline Storck

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: