Tracing the Impact of Online Activism in the Renisha McBride Case
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.
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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.
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.
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, 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.