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#IfTheyGunnedMeDown Rails Against Mass Media Bigotry

Twitter Activists Expose National Biases

Who are you on social media? Are you the party animal, with every Sunday bringing a flurry of blurred images of you with bottle in hand and arms around friends? Are you the traveller, checking in from distant locales while you smile in front of crumbling ruins and carefully posed natives? Or are you the consummate professional, listing every internship, every scholarly award, your profile picture showing you neat and suited?

Probably, like most people, you’re a mixture. Scrolling back through your Facebook timeline would throw up garbled statuses written at 3 am, pictures of you draped in graduation robes surrounded by beaming relatives, and probably not a few misjudged haircuts and fashion choices. So if you had to have one of these versions of yourself beamed onto every screen in the country, which would it be?

That’s the question asked by the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, and it’s one asked in an increasingly angry and vital context.

When unarmed 18 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, local news outlets ran the story alongside a picture of Mr. Brown at his high school graduation. As the story gained traction and broke nationally, however, the official line changed: Brown had struggled with the police, and now the image shown alongside the story was of him unsmiling and gesturing towards the camera with what many old white men called ‘gang signs.’

In response, African-Americans across Twitter posted two pictures of themselves: one in a respectable pose, in military uniform or graduation robes; the other in a more casual setting, with a bottle of alcohol or wreathed in smoke. The question which accompanied the dual images was ‘#IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which picture would they show?’

The movement acted as a direct and powerful critique of the blinkered nature of modern mass media. In all the news outlets' reportage of the event there was no nuance, no discussion – only declarations. Not only this, but it exposed the institutional racism which still infects contemporary media’s perception of ethnic minorities. Some contrasted the images of the innocent Michael Brown with reports on James Holmes, who shot dozens of people in a cinema in Denver, Colorado in 2012 – and whose smiling high school portrait appeared beneath the headline declaring ‘Theater Shooting Suspect Was A Brilliant Science Student.’ James Holmes is, of course, a white man.

Part of social media’s strength is its role as a force for the democratisation of voice, its ability to make alternative views available in a way which was never before possible. There’s a reason that the percentage of African-Americans on Twitter is double their representation in the general population: it affords them a platform denied them in society as a whole. Important to remember, however, is that national discourse is still to an overwhelming degree dictated by traditional media – an institution with no shortage of heavily embedded biases and unconscious bigotry.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown is such a necessary example of social media activism because it illustrates this so eloquently. Many of us take it for granted that we can, to a greater extent than not, dictate the terms of our identity. It’s important to remember that this is a right denied to many.


Douglas is an English Literature graduate who has written about everything from music to food to theatre, now a content creator for Social Media Frontiers. No topic too large or too small. Follow him @DouglasAtSMF.

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#IfTheyGunnedMeDown Rails Against Mass Media Bigotry Reviewed by Anonymous on Thursday, August 14, 2014 Rating: 5
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