Is Social Media a New Frontier for Marginalised Communities to Challenge Old Power? The Flint Water Tragedy, and the Power of Place-Based Digital Activism
This is the second of a four-part Global Policy blog series that seeks to spark new ways of thinking about digitally-mediated activism. It engages Timms and Heimans’ New/Old Power framework as a pivot upon which to interrogate power: asking how activists can use the internet to achieve and challenge new forms of power and ultimately, better make change happen. Read the first here.
National lockdowns have raised a number of questions about how to ‘do activism’ when we are physically removed from one another - but for poor and marginalised communities around the world, these questions existed long before the pandemic. This blog post explores how social media has become a site of resistance for marginalised groups by examining the Flint Water crisis, where residents used hashtag ethnographies to challenge the mainstream media’s monopoly on truth. It applies Timms and Heiman’s Old/New Power framework to better understand Flint’s successes, and to make the case, contra Malcolm Gladwell, that in the end the revolution might just be tweeted.
Background: the Flint water crisis
The Flint Water Crisis was a public health emergency that began in 2014 when, in a bid to cut costs, Michigan State Governor Rick Snyder made the decision to switch the city's water supply from Lake Huron to the River Flint. In the following year, residents complained about the taste, smell and colour of the water, with many beginning to exhibit dermatological conditions, especially among children. Even car manufacturing plants complained that the water was so corrosive it was damaging car parts. Eventually, more than a year after residents had been drinking and washing in the water, scientists were able to confirm the extremely high presence of lead in the city’s supply. The World Health Organisation defines anything over 5,000 parts per billion of lead as hazardous waste dangerous to human life; the water in Flint was found to contain 13,000 parts per billion. In total, it is estimated that 6 - 12,000 children were exposed to lead poisoning.
To situate the crisis in broader the socio-political context, Flint has long been one of the poorest cities in America. Many of its socioeconomic problems are the result of rapid de-industrialisation in the 1960s and subsequent decades of fiscal conservatism and underinvestment. Also, given that 57% of Flint residents are African American, the crisis is a powerful example of environmental racism and lays bare the stark realities of American racial capitalism. As the shortcomings at COP26 have made clear, and as Flint evidenced, the world’s poorest and most marginalised are disproportionately bearing the brunt of environmental harm while their voices and demands are being ignored by the institutions essential to their survival.
Given this precedence, national and international news coverage of the Flint crisis was predictably lethargic. When it did arrive, the coverage depicted Flint as a lost cause: an inevitable victim of crime, corruption, and poverty. News articles contained almost zero input from residents, and instead drew primarily from city officials and government sources - those responsible for the crisis. The citizens were thus relegated to the position of victim, becoming decentralised in their own story and denied the right to their own perspectives and contributions. Such a framing reinforced, and was a product of, long-standing essentialised representations of Flint as an evanescent city most would rather ignore (though not unique to the US, there is a distinctly American flavour to depictions of poverty as an eyesore for the rich).
Analysis of Flint and what it means for an activism of the marginalised
For Flint’s residents, the way they were portrayed in the media mattered almost as much as the quality of their water: as long as the world saw the crisis through the eyes of its perpetrators, its structural causes would remain unchallenged. In response to this media coverage, therefore, and its dominant discourse that the water ‘wasn’t that bad’, thousands of Flint residents took to social media to show the world what life in Flint was really like. They shared testimonies using the hashtag ‘FlintFwd’ and a Facebook group called ‘Humans of Flint’ to display and celebrate the positive aspects of life in Flint. In this way, they resisted their labelling as victims and carved a new narrative for themselves as people with hope, love, and happiness like anyone else. This allowed them to bridge the gap between their experience and how it was being represented in the media. Rarely, in a crisis, do victims have such opportunity to communicate their humanity and agency.
So what does this mean for an activism of the marginalized? More than anything else, the activism formed a sort of alternative storytelling that was led by citizens and which resisted the power of the mainstream media to control the narrative. Social media platforms like Twitter thus became critical sites for collectively constructing counternarratives and reimagining group identities. As a result, in Flint, no longer were journalists the gatekeepers of what is and isn’t newsworthy, and no longer did media organisations have a monopoly on truth or how it's framed. Rather, by harnessing the uniquely connective and accessible potential of online social media platforms, Flint’s community was able to construct their own truth, reclaim some power in how they are portrayed, and meaningfully contribute to global discussions. Importantly, the same has been observed for marginalised communities around the world: Inuit in Canada, for example, are using digital technologies to redefine notions of climate vulnerability based on their own knowledge and experience.
Beyond this, the kind of digital activism displayed in Flint is a vital form of cultural memory and it matters immensely that we document moments of crisis from citizen perspectives. Hashtag ethnographies essentially serve as digital witness testimonies, and when it comes to achieving justice, these photographs, videos, and communications, become hugely important. This is not limited to environmental disasters either: rather, “the increased use and availability of these technologies has provided marginalized and racialized populations with new tools for documenting incidents of state-sanctioned violence, and contesting media representations of racialized bodies and marginalized communities.” Think of the recent murders of George Floyd, Michael Brown, and Breonna Taylor by American police officers. Here, the resultant anger and protest, and any meaningful reform that may still occur as a result, happened because social media enabled the flow of information, personal accounts, and citizen journalism to spread like wildfire: endlessly shared, contributed to, and amplified. Without it, the murders would have occurred out of sight and out of mind.
What does the New/Old Power framework bring to this case of activism?
New Power-channelled digital activism has often been criticised for failing to generate meaningful buy-in among its participants (see, again, Gladwell). Flint proves, on the contrary, that New Power can be drawn directly from, and impact, the material relations of everyday life. Unlike other digitally-driven movements such as BLM and MeToo - umbrella movements that maintained the same meaning across places and communities - Flint’s online activism was rooted in a distinct and specific sense of place and collective identity that was unique to the material experience of living in Flint. In this way, it can be seen as an online extension of the ‘real world’, and a way of enhancing the bonds between the people who live there. Flint’s Twitter users were thus not simply tweeting about Flint but were participating in its liberatory movement in a very real way.
The online world also affords protection. It is no coincidence that those most likely to suffer police brutality, or to be perniciously misrepresented by the media, are those most likely to engage in digital activism (the proportion of black Americans using Twitter outstrips white users by 6%). The online world thus forms a site of resistance where the reach of traditional agents of power is neutered and where marginalised people, largely voiceless in traditional media and political fora, can magnify their voice and channel their collective feeling.
The Old/New Power framework, then, is important because it allows us to see the crucial importance of the Internet’s connecting potential. The movement was clearly New-Power led: being open-access, owner-less and created by the crowd, and becoming far more than the sum of its parts. The collective contribution of thousands of citizens, and the epistemic and real power it yielded, is New Power par excellence. It left Old Power organisations, like the mainstream media, the presidential administration, and local government, powerless to stop the counter-narrative that refuted their portrayal of Flint. The people of Flint implicated the world as witnesses to their crisis and reclaimed their authority and agency in the process. Clearly, when certain values (participation, collectivism, adaptation) are embraced through digital mechanisms, previously immutable Old Power can be challenged.
Digitally-mediated activism in Flint has achieved a great deal. Those who took to social media revealed to the world (and reified for themselves) their own truth, challenging their construction by the water crisis’ perpetrators, and forming powerful connections in the process. For example, Governor Synder and a number of ex-officials have in the last year been charged by the US Attorney General for their criminal negligence in the crisis - an outcome unlikely had it not been for the online storm created by residents.
Despite all this, however, residents still face an uncertain future with long-term health complications and little sign of financial remuneration; many still even rely on bottled water. The State of Michigan has therefore failed to meaningfully address the structural problems which caused the crisis. In this light, we are forced to ask: how successful an episode of change is this really? Is this a predictable shortcoming of New Power? What could the movement have achieved if it had representation in the corridors of power - could it have translated the online movement into more formal legislation, bills or senate action?
Nevertheless, even if you doubt the ability of New Power and digitally mediated activism to achieve tangible end products, Flint proves that it can, at the very least, provide an epistemic emancipation from Old Power - and in that there remains huge potential for poor and marginalised communities. The revolution may not be tweeted, but it will certainly have its genesis on social media, and activists must embrace that if they are to utilise the very best of New Power.
Having finished her academic pursuits for now (Geography BA from Cambridge; Development Studies MSc with Distinction from the LSE), Nina is now working as a junior public sector consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. So far, she has worked on issues of local government reform but hopes to expand this to gain experience working with central government and international actors in the coming months. To get in touch, contact her via LinkedIn or follow on Twitter (@NewhouseNina).
Charlie Batchelor is a Freelance Research and Policy Consultant. He received his Masters in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies with Distinction from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). For business enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter: @charliejbatch
Header Photo by Pixabay from Pexels
Image in body: WikiCommons Osborne bo9de (talk | contribs)