Tracing the Impact of Online Activism in the Renisha McBride Case

Renisha Mcbride

On November 2, 2013, 19-year-old Renisha McBride was fatally shot in the face on the porch of Detroit homeowner, Theodore Wafer. A few days after the shooting, a local protest was organized, conversations began to emerge on social media, and the story quickly got picked up by national news outlets. Here I ask, did online activism and organizing efforts, lead by writer, filmmaker, and activist dream hampton, force McBride’s story into the national spotlight?

I often argue that online organizing is a necessary political practice of the millennial generation (see, for example, young people involved in organizing the Jena Six protest, and the work of the Dream Defenders). But many of us wonder if our organizing efforts on social media like Facebook and Twitter actually work. I’ve put together a comprehensive analysis using an interactive timeline and infographic (or visual data storytelling) to illustrate that online organizing, particularly in this case, forced McBride’s story into national headlines and quite possibly prompted swifter action from the prosecution to formally charge Theodore Wafer with second-degree murder on November 15, 2013.

With this analysis I want to understand, 1) how and in what ways online organizing efforts and activism played a role in forcing the McBride story into national headlines, and 2) if it is at all possible to measure the impact of online organizing involved in the McBride case.

I chose the McBride story as a case study because I care about the well-being of young Black women in the US, and because I had a virtual front seat to witness how writer, filmmaker, and activist dream hampton used Facebook and Twitter to organize the first public rally held in Detroit on November 7, 2013.

LISTEN: Tara L. Conley discusses study on WPFW 98.3 FM

The Timeline

With this timeline, I attempt to create a chronology of events that arguably led to criminal charges being filed in the death of Renisha McBride. Included on the interactive timeline are instances of online activism efforts on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, along with breaking national news stories from major media outlets (including curated stories from Storify) that followed.


The Story

Using data visualization tools, I created an infographic that tells a story about influential actors and movement-shifting processes involved with online activism efforts and breaking news coverage after McBride’s death and immediately before charges were filed. Primary takeaways: Facebook reigns supreme as share king, The Huffington Post dominates as a news source and aggregator for the McBride story, and Twitter plays a quantitatively smaller role, but has a qualitatively significant impact on how the McBride story and narrative was distributed online and subsequently picked up by news sources.

How Do You Measure Impact?

I don’t presume to know the definitive answer to this question; however, in this case it is possible to measure online organizing efforts that prompted the McBridge story into the national spotlight. I chose to analyze a finite amount of time for a reason; thirteen days after McBride died the prosecution formally charged Theodore Wafer of second-degree murder. This relatively short timespan gave me enough material (but no too much material) to weed through news articles, SM status updates, and metrics to pull together somewhat of a cohesive story. Would there have been a formal charge made on November 15, 2013 without the groundswell of online organizing and national news coverage? Who knows. However, I do think that the grassroots organizing efforts that took place online and offline forced this story into the national spotlight. The timeline above indicates a noticeable spike in news coverage between 11/7/13 and 11/8/13, a few days after news broke about McBride’s death and while the first public rally was being organized online. Also during this time, conversations about the fatal shooting began to emerge frequently on Twitter and Facebook.

But I also believe there are other key reasons why this story went viral.

1) dream hampton

The role of status (whether it be celebrity and/or social) to incite movement played a key role in why and how information about McBride’s case went viral. Writer, filmmaker, and activist dream hampton has had a notable presence online over the past several years. Hampton also has a proven track record as a hip-hop journalist and community organizer. Hampton’s online presence might describe both a celebrity and micro-celebrity status. As Dr. Alice Marwick notes, micro-celebrity status is an “emerging online practice” that involves strategically creating and maintaing an online persona. One might also consider hampton as having celebrity status, in the traditional and mainstream sense, since she has had fans and admirers before Twitter and Facebook became common online spaces for people to cultivate public audiences. Therefore, when dream tweets and updates her status, people tune in, including other influential folks who can type up press releases, organize on the ground protests, and produce news media content within the hour. All of these efforts, factored in with hampton’s influence helped to shape what I believe to be a public (and newsworthy) display of resistance in the case of Renisha McBride.

2) Emotion

Emotion certainly played a role in why the story continued to pick up steam within the first week after McBride was fatally shot. It isn’t a stretch to argue that people in this country are experiencing high levels of anxiety during an era of increasing gun violence, mass shootings, and state sanctioned racial profiling. Author Kiese Laymon illustrates this sort of anxiety best when he writes about the agony involved in (re)membering How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. So when a story breaks about a child or young person being shot, it will likely appeal to the public’s emotion and disposition towards racial politics and gun violence, because re-experiencing the fatal death of our children tends to takes a toll on our collective consciousness, even if we think we’re numb to it all.

3) Transmedia Storytelling

Transmedia storytelling, or telling a story across multiple media platforms has been an adopted business model in the film industry and embraced by creative media makers for several decades, (see my book review on Convergence Culture detailing the Star Wars, The Matrix, and Harry Potter franchises). For this reason, transmedia storytelling played a key role in how McBride’s story went from being a reported incident to a humanizing profile about a young 19-year-old Black woman from Detroit, Michigan. The #RenishaMcBride hashtag, created by dream hampton helped others across platforms like Twitter, YouTube (see videos located in timeline above), and Instagram to attach their own voices and life experiences to the case. Storify posts were also created (see Alyson Mier’s Storify located in the timeline above) that archived personal stories and critiques about the erasure of young Black and brown lives in the US.

4) U.S. Racial Climate

A friend recently told me that the primary reason why the case got picked up nationally is because of race; that is to say, in an Obama era when obtuse pundits decry “post-racial American politics” and Stand Your Ground laws trump anti-racial profiling legislation, it is no surprise then that stories about non-Black men fatally gunning down unarmed Black teenagers become fodder for national media coverage. And while I believe the comparisons between Renisha McBride’s death and Trayvon Martin’s death are inaccurate, these comparisons do reflect pulsating racial tensions in the US. Admittedly, my friend’s observations are incisive, but I don’t believe race only played a primary role in the story getting picked up. Rather from my observations, I saw race talk as a component to the overall dynamic process involved in what I’m inarticulately calling the impactfulness of online organizing and activism.

Impactfulness

Impactfulness, or glimpses of effect, happens as a result of an elaborate nexus of mixed processes. When individuals like dream hampton and Kate Abbey-Lambertz of Huff Post Detroit do what they’re supposed to do as concerned citizens and reporters, respectfully, then impactfulness can be traced. I say impactfulness, rather than impact, because when it comes to understanding connective online landscapes, movement appears like shifting blurred lines. Causation and correlation can be argued, but they aren’t the primary means of analysis here. Even though I use a linear model to illustrate past events that took place after McBride’s death, I also acknowledge that each event and individual (the writers, activists, and media makers) collectively moved this story towards a direction that encompasses empathy, action, and awareness. These whirlpooling processes (see Azuka Nzegwu’s dope dissertation on whirlpooling as a theory of knowledge construction) might also appear like a germinating ecosystem and network wherein one organism or node grew because some other organism or node was already set in place and established (the use of mixed metaphors isn’t unintentional). Though I understand fully the frustration felt by many activists and writers who would have preferred a swifter responses from the Dearborn Police department, I am proud of the work of these same activists and writers who woke up every morning with Renisha McBride on their minds and in their hearts. It was because of their efforts, regardless of lag in justice that will also tell the story of Theodore Wafer, the man now charged in the death of Renisha McBride.

Tara L. Conley is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University’s Teachers College studying media as ecosystems of support. She’s also the founder of MEDIA MAKE CHANGE. You can find her hovering over a dented Macbook Pro writing, tweeting, researching, and creating interactive web media. For more, visit www.taralconley.org.


Advice for 2014 Media Ideation Fellows

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Great news for aspiring social and tech entrepreneurs! Media Ideation is looking for a brand new batch of fellows. Applications are officially open.

I had the pleasure of being part of the inaugural class of Media Ideation fellows last year.

Several people have reached out asking for advice as they prepare their applications due January 31, 2014. I’ve compiled a Q&A list below based on questions people have been asking me. Feel free to tweet me @taralconley if you have additional questions or insights to provide. I’ll be sure to update this post with new questions as they come in.

Best of luck to all the applicants!

Can you tell me about your experience with the fellowship?

Overall, my experience with the fellowship has been a good one. I was awarded the graduate level fellowship ($12,000), which afforded me the opportunity to develop TXT CONNECT over the course of 3 months. I’ve met people in the design and tech fields that I probably would not have met otherwise. Certainly there are moments when I wish I had more time and more funds to work with but I think these limitations force you to hone your idea into something that is realistic and feasible. The financial support from the fellowship enabled me to work closely with co-designers (youth in NYC), and as a result I was able to develop a mobile platform with young people and also write a research study based on our time spent together. My research study is currently under the review of an international journal.

How are you using the fellowship for 3 months for a project that will likely take much more time to develop?

As mentioned above, because you have a limited amount of time and funds to work with, the best advice I can give to those who are now applying is to narrow your focus and scope down to an idea that can be developed realistically and feasibly. Ask yourself: What can I realistically accomplish in three or six months? Remember that the fellowship is there to help you develop your idea, so use that time wisely. As visionaries we tend to think long-term, certainly keep this strategy in mind, but also incorporate short-term strategies as a way to scaffold, or build up through each phase.

Think about how best your time and funds can be utilized across various stages of development including technology and legal costs and building relationships over time. Really breakdown what development means for your project. It’s not just the technology itself that has to be developed, but also the relationships and partnerships with stakeholders, community members, and/or end users that also need to be developed and nurtured overtime. As it concerns legal issues and costs, you want to do some research about incorporation and/or terms of service. The fellowship offers access to legal consultants.

How did you choose your deliverables for the fellowship period?

Since TXT CONNECT was also my pilot study for my doctoral research, I already had a good idea of what my timeline looked like going into the fellowship. My deliverables were primarily based on a timeline I created early on. The fellowship asks you to outline a timeline, which I think is a great strategy to get you thinking about what and how you can accomplish various benchmarks and milestones. I knew I had 90 days to work with, so I thought strategically about what I could realistically accomplish each month, whether it was solidifying a name, organizing focus groups, or launching a beta version of the platform, each stage or phase was outlined before I began the fellowship. As you are going through the application process consider this the beginning stage of building your strategy.

What did you do during your fellowship?

I spent most of the fellowship designing and developing TXT CONNECT with co-designers in informal focus group settings. We met once or twice a week for 3 months. I also spent a good deal of time consulting with designers, partners, organizers, and lawyers to help think through development and towards implementation. Overall, I spent most of my time listening to other people and redesigning accordingly.


Tara L. Conley Racial Literacy Roundtables Talk

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On Monday, October 14, 2013 I presented at this year’s first Racial Literacy Roundtables talk at Teachers College Columbia University. I presented on my current and ongoing research involving participatory design and working with young people who are involved in foster care and juvenile/criminal justice systems to develop TXT CONNECT, a free mobile platform for court-involved youth in NYC.

RLR Whiteboard

Highlights from the talk include:

  • Ways to conceptualize and re-imagine participation.
  • Reviewing youth demographic statistics in NYC, highlighting, in particular, the disproportionate number of Black and brown youth involved in juvenile/criminal justice systems and foster care.
  • Reflecting on what it means to engage multiple stakeholders in the process of designing a technical and digital artifact with and for young people who are often disconnected and lack reliable access to information.

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Some notable statistics (references included in slides below):

  • 25% of youth (< 18-years-old) in NYC are considered Black/African American, yet make up 65% of the juvenile justice population in NYC, and 59% of the foster care population in NYC.
  • 35.5% of youth (< 18-years-old) in NYC are considered Hispanic, and make up 30% of the juvenile justice population in NYC, and 27.4% of the foster care population in NYC.
  • White youth make up 25% of the youth population in NYC, yet make up less than 5% of the juvenile justice and foster care population in NYC

This was the first time I was able to present my research, in depth, to my peers and others in the academic community. The conversations that emerged from the chat were inspiring, particularly as it had to do with the ways educators and researchers are currently thinking about how social and digital media can, and ought to be used as meaningful tools in the classroom and beyond.

So often we assume media are something young people simply and only consume, but in fact, we’re learning that young people are also integral mediamakers and designers in the “stuff” they use.

Below is a highlight video from the talk.

Tara L. Conley Racial Literacy Roundtables Talk from Media Make Change on Vimeo.

I’ve also posted my presentation slides HERE.

For more information on my current research, please visit www.taralconley.org

Credits: Lalitha Vasudevan (photography and videography), Joe Riina-Ferrie (videography)

 


Participatory Design and Young People as ‘Possibilities Personified’

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 Tara L. Conley, Teachers College, Columbia University (March 29, 2013)

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to speak about participatory design and fostering critical connections in our work with young people. Though the talk was meant as a brief audition for TEDxTeachersCollege next month, I was able to share some of the work I’ve been doing with young people involved in building a text line for court-involved youth in NYC.

As I continue to work with young people on the mobile initiative, I’m beginning to understand why it’s important for us, as educators, designers, researchers, and social entrepreneurs to involve young people in the work that we’re doing. Particularly if your mission is to actively support communities and young people, it’s important to involve motivated young leaders because, quite frankly, they know more than we do about what’s best for their neighborhoods, families, and local cohorts. It’s sounds simple enough but you’d be surprised at how much we end up not actively involving young people in work that is meant to support their growth.

In this brief 5-minute talk I outline some of the reasons why I believe that participating in collaborative working groups is an effective strategy for community building and social entrepreneurship. I also touch on the idea that the process of building and creating technology platforms with others may result in a kinship formation experience where we not only produce knowledge together but we do so in a way that can yield sustainable outcomes for surrounding communities.

A few key definitions and insights that inform my work thus far:

Participatory Design

“Participatory design is a hybrid experience where participants are neither user or developer but both simultaneously. Characteristics of PD experiences include ‘challenging assumptions, learning reciprocally, and creating new ideas, which emerge through negotiation and co-creation of identities, working languages, understandings, and relationships, and polyvocal (many-voiced) discussions across and through differences'” (Muller; 2002).

 

“‘Believing in the potential of everyone to design is more egalitarian than believing in exclusive talents and specialised roles. However, this is not the same as involving every potential user in every design project, or at all stages, or in the same way as the next person” (Light & Luckin, 2008).

It is not the hand that makes the designer, it’s the eye. Learning to design is learning to see . . .Our experience sharpens our eyes to certain perceptions and shapes what we expect to see, just as what we expect to see shapes our experience. Our reality is perspectival. Although we don’t perceive and sense things that a more experienced practitioner can, we can learn. (Reichenstein; 2013).


Transcript from my talk below.

Thank you.

I’d like to share a quote with you from author Margaret Wheatley, who received her doctorate in education from Harvard University. She wrote in 2006,

“Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections.  We don’t need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits.  Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage, and commitment that lead to broad-based change”

I recently received a Media Ideation Fellowship grant that will allow me to begin developing a text line for court-involved youth in New York City. The text line will support young people involved in foster care, juvenile justice, and criminal justice systems so that can use their cell phones to access educational, vocational, and intervention support resources.

I’m currently working directly with young people who serve on the text line youth advisory board to develop the mobile initiative.

For the TEDxTeachersCollege conference, I would like to talk about the significance of collaborative working groups between young people and social entrepreneurs, and the exponential impact this particular collaborative cohort has on the broader community.

I want to talk about how we can, as Margaret Wheatley amply describes, foster critical connections through our work and by way of democratic working processes, and through what Oliver Reichenstein articulates as an understanding that learning to design (in what ever form that may take for educators, scholars, and designers) means learning to see. Learning to see.

To that end, I want to discuss how we might envision and situate technology artifacts as points of entry where community building and kinships can emerge. And how we might re-conceptualize the process of building and incorporating technologies in learning spaces with members of communities we wish to serve.

While working with the youth advisory board over the past four weeks, I’m beginning to notice these sort of third space, or hybrid, themes come about, and I want to share these themes with the TC community as a way to inform our teaching, researching, and design practices.

Some of the themes I’ve noticed include:

  • The idea that social entrepreneurship is fundamentally participatory
  • That participatory design methods as defined by Mueller look more and more like kinship formations
  • Also the idea that critical connections yield knowledge production that is local, specific, and sustainable
  • And the idea that hybridization does not only apply to theory and practice but also applies to entrepreneurship and learning
  • And finally, it is the notion that education is a concept we can actually define through democratic learning processes and, most importantly, through love.

Before I go, I want to share with you a story. I was walking home with one of the youth advisory board members recently. And she told me that when she first heard about the opportunity to be part of the development of the text line she knew she wanted to be involved. She told me that she thought the text line would be a great way for court-involved youth to access resources that were usually difficult to impossible to access. Then she said to me, “You know, when I first head that someone was developing a text line for court-involved youth, my first thought was, ‘Wow! Someone out there actually cares about fosters kids.’”

That was my ah-ha moment. That was when I realized why it’s so important for us to develop strategies and create spaces where we involved young people in our teaching, researching, and design methods.

Because young people are not statistics or bodies to fill up classrooms, residential facilities, or prisons. They are media makers. They are developers. They are designers. Young people, especially the one I work with, are possibilities personified. Thank you.

References

Fouche, R. (2013). “From Black Inventors to One Laptop Per Child: Exploring a Racial Politics of Technology” in Race after the Internet, L. Nakamura & P. A. Chow-White (EDs). (pp. 61-83)

Kensing, F. and J. Blomberg. (1998). Participatory Design: Issues and Concerns

Light, A., and Luckin, R. (2008). Designing for social justice: People, technology, and learning. Futurelab: http://archive.futurelab.org.uk/resources/publications-reports-articles/opening-education-reports/

Muller, M. J. Participatory design: The third space in HCI. In J. A. Jacko and A. Sears (Eds.), The Human Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, 2002, 1051–1068.

Reinchenstein, O. (2013). Learning to see.

 


Huff Post Front Page Graphic Highlights US Gun Violence Epidemic

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April 22, 2013 – Friday night, The Huffington Post debuted on its front page a striking graphic representing US deaths related to gun violence since the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2013. The moving graphic illustrates nearly real-time statistics of gun deaths across the country. Many of these gun related instances appear to be concentrated on the eastern part of the country (with the exception of California and Texas). It also appears that most gun violence is situated in densely populated areas. Congress has since failed to pass an assault weapons ban.

For some perspective, according to the Huff Post graphic there have been 2,244 deaths since the Sandy Hook shooting (98 days). There have been a total of 852 civilian deaths in Iraq since January 2013 and 2,537 civilian causalities in Afghanistan from 2009-2010.

Huffington Post states it’s methodology is based on “compiled news reports of gun-related homicides and accidental deaths in the U.S. since the massacre in Newtown, Conn. on the morning of Dec. 14.”

This is perhaps an example of digital media journalism at its finest. The use of interactive mapping, data visualization, and infographics are becoming increasingly popular means of documenting and showing information. As gun-related violence continues to infiltrate cities and neighborhoods across this country, the use of media here seems like the most appropriate means of providing the public with necessary information while raising awareness.

A question we’re most concerned with here at MEDIA MAKE CHANGE is what do we do with this visual information? Related to this question concerns, how can media, in this instance, work to inform and evoke necessary action to change the current epidemic in this country related to gun violence? What calls-to-action might we engage so this graphic doesn’t simply collect virtual dust?

A good place to start would be to contact your local congress person (senator and HOR) and, as professor Sarah Jackson suggested, email the graphic directly to your representative.

Kudos to Huffington Post for using media to spread information and evoke awareness. Here’s hoping we can use this online media artifact to change the course of gun violence spread across our neighborhoods offline.


© 2014 Media Make Change