Social media acts as a double-edged sword in protests

Courtney Garcia
News Writer
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Photo by Camille Nevarez-Hernandez      Student athletes Melissa Brown and Nadiria Evans, on the foreground, share their life experiences on dealing with racism

In the past several months, protests in Asheville have caught national and local attention. With access to the internet and therefore, social media and news outlets, organizers and demonstrators have to hide their identities in fear of being doxed by law enforcement and counter-protesters.
Allani Rahsaan Dye, a senior at UNC Asheville studying English literature said she has attended 10 protests and been involved in more than five since the demonstrations began in June.
“The media has put our safety in jeopardy many times by publishing our full government names, taking our mission and our actions out of context and twisting it and even pitting mem-bers of the Black community against each other in articles they’ve put out,” Rahsaan Dye said.
Rahsaan Dye said the reason organizers are asking not to have their photos taken and shared on social media is for their safety.
“We don’t want to be next,” she said.
She said it is vital to blur the faces of the demonstrators and organizers effectively.
“If we see you videoing us or taking pictures, our immediate response is usually to be quite defensive,” Rahsaan Dye said. “I’d encourage anyone that wants to document the movement via camera to check in with an organizer before filming and definitely before posting.”
She said there are other ways to document the movement, including writing articles or creating art and music that does the same to depict the movement.
“Even just documenting it all within yourself to acknowledge your existence within such a turbulent yet crucial point in history. These are all options,” Rahsaan Dye said.
Caitlyn Penter, a reporter at WLOS, reported on almost every night of the protests since they started in late May and early June.
Penter said her job includes documenting history so people can look back and see what happened during this monumental time in the future.
“I’m totally fine with blurring faces and staying back from the crowd,” she said. “But it’s really frustrating when I can’t get the protesters’ side of the story because they won’t talk to me.”
Penter said the demonstrators’ response was very different at the beginning of the demonstrations in June.
“Back in the first round I feel like it was a lot more welcoming and people were OK with telling me why they were out there and kind of talking about their motivations and the purpose behind it. And with its most recent round, we can’t even get within 15 to 20 feet before someone tells us to leave. So it’s definitely different,” Penter said.
She said in the beginning, her role was to help amplify voices.
“I could be totally off-base with this but I really do feel like people back in May and June thought that we could help them in a sense,” Penter said.
“Now I don’t really know if we play a role at all because we are not wanted and they don’t want us to be there. So it’s pretty hard to have an impact on the protest if I can’t be there.”
During the earlier demonstrations WLOS used Facebook Live to document the movement.
“Thinking back, maybe that wasn’t the way to go because I think that also caused a lot of the hostility of this latest round of protest,” she said.
Kevin Wilkerson, an Asheville native, said after the first couple of demonstrations, he decided to step back as an organizer and focus his strategy on social media.
“My strengths are expressing myself over social media and trying to persuade and inform and educate people who were just not waking up,” Wilkerson said. “Those were my goals in this protest era that we are in now.”
He said after the killing of George Floyd, he felt anger and resentment toward the police. He said he wanted to be a part of the movement but was hesitant to join the demonstrations Downtown.
“It’s just as powerful to express yourself online,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve had a big success and got a lot of people waking up and seeing my perspective of being a Black man here in Asheville or to be a Black man here in this country and make changes involving police brutality and racial inequality that’s been present for decades.”
Wilkerson said almost everyone has access to social media making it a powerful tool to both the organizers and the media.
“It’s the way that we can connect and express ourselves,” he said. “But it’s also a way for information.”
Rahsaan Dye said social media serves as an especially important form of media in regards to what they are doing here as it both allows more autonomy to speak their truths and put out their own messages. But this also runs the simultaneous risk of spinning out of control or the possibility of police or white supremacists intercepting details of actions and mobilizing to antagonize or harm the organizers and protesters.
“Social media has truly amplified our voices, so in this sense, it has exacerbated the movement in so many good ways. But it can also quickly spiral out of control,” Rahsaan Dye said. “For the most part we are able to control what is received and it allows us to make actions happen as well as raise funds for those disproportionately affected by capitalism and the healthcare system. This includes people of color with disabilities, racism, sexism and homophobia and transphobia.”
Rahsaan Dye said with today’s technology and instant access to social media and other online resources people have the ability to educate themselves better than ever.
“It’s inescapable, so there’s truly no excuse for living in ignorance at this point,” she said.
Dye said documenting the demonstrations is important for history but does not think white individuals should be controlling what that documentation looks like.
She said the documentation of the movement would only be significant if Black individuals are given the opportunity to speak and the depiction of the demonstration is factual, then documentation will be essential for the future.
Wilkerson said documenting the protests and keeping the message in the spotlight is essential for the movement.
“This is something that I feel like if we didn’t have the media, then a lot of things would be swept under the rug and never be seen again,” he said.
Rahsaan Dye said the way the media depicts the movement is more often than not framed based on political, religious and economic reasons.
She said non-affiliated media coverage tends to take the organizers’ voices into account more because they are a part of the community and want to see improvement.
“Which means fact checking and reporting non-biased news instead of pandering to a bunch of racist conservatives and dirty cops that have a thing for coming to peaceful protests dressed like transformers,” Rahsaan Dye said.
Penter said independent media personnel could often get closer to the action and hide in the crowd to get a comprehensive article.
“I realized in the second round that people know who I am. They’ve seen my coverage. They see it online. They see it on tv. So, there’s no way that we can sort of blend in to get the story,” Penter said.
Wilkerson said certain local media outlets focus more on the chaos and division in the city rather than the message and reason behind it all.
“There’s SKYline news. I believe that’s a more conservative part of the media. So they’re trying to support their groups, like All Lives Matter and the police department and all
that,” Wilkerson said. “Where I think other outlets like WLOS and Asheville Citizen-Times have been getting both sides of the story. And I think that’s what the media should do, make sure not to depict just one side. That’s when chaos and negativity find its way in.”
Rahsaan Dye said the media has evolved in an organic way around the movement.
“Those that never understood us still don’t, those that stand with us will continue to write and post things that uplift the Black community and this civil rights movement, and those that are strictly in it for profit will write and publish whatever sells,” she said.
She said when the media portrays the demonstrations in a negative light it only makes the movement stronger.
“It honestly just fuels the fire, makes us cry out louder, makes us reach out harder,” Rahsaan Dye said.
“It has solidified our reasons for showing up and sealed our bonds with one another.”
Penter said one of the most impactful moments of the movement was at the end of the first week when thousands of community members joined each other and their Black organizers in Pack Square Park and listened to their stories.
“It was hostile. There was a lot of tension with the police,” she said. “It was a lot those first four days and then on that Thursday, thousands of people came downtown and it was just such a positive day in my opinion and we got to hear all of the sides of the story and people were just willing to listen to black voices and in that moment, you just kind of feel like that was an important day and that kind of showed me what it was all really about.”