You would be hard-pressed to find two professions on more opposite sides of the law than police officers and sex workers. But these groups do have something in common: They both use social media to mobilize their supporters and fight for, or against, legislation that directly impacts them.
Working with professor and sociology chair Robert Futrell, an expert in social movements and change, two UNLV doctoral students are exploring how these groups leverage and extend their digital activism into the real world.
“Social media is a great tool for reaching out and connecting but also may increase expectations around getting people to mobilize that aren’t always viable,” Futrell said. “Even if you get people to mobilize now, how do you get that to persist over time?”
Both the social groups Futrell’s students study have been savvy in their use of social media to mobilize their members, make a significant impact, and continue thriving.
Jennifer Stevens is exploring social media advocacy among police officers. She wrote her master’s thesis on the Tea Party movement and became interested in Blue Lives Matter while studying how such social movements use technology and digital spaces. Blue Lives Matter, which advocates for crimes committed against police officers to be prosecuted as hate crimes, formed in 2014 as a countermovement to Black Lives Matter, which formed in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. On Facebook, the Blue Lives Matter community page now exceeds 2.2 million members.
Emily Coombes’ initial interest was in how marginalized groups, like sex workers, use the internet to build community and communicate with each other. A community organizer, she focused on a sex worker sub-Reddit and found that people there largely used the site for mutual aid, including resource and information sharing, safety tips, and emotional support. From there, Coombes worked with both Futrell and sociology professor Barb Brents to examine how sex workers organized around those issues — how these communities built online surfaced offline.
Identity in a Post-Truth World
As she studied the Blue Lives Matter movement, Stevens found that the group perceived media stories to be false rhetoric. This led to them rewriting the stories, which played a role in galvanizing their community and helping lead changes in laws — changes that were influenced by this distrust of the mainstream media’s portrayal of police.
Although attacks against police have been declining for decades and were at a near-record low in 2018, Stevens found through her research that the Blue Lives Matter organization uses its social media spaces to rewrite stories in the media through a lens of being “under attack.”
“The platform helps solidify their bond and group identity because they all connect over these stories,” Stevens said. “But it also connects their community by solidifying an ‘us vs. them’ mentality that is very antagonistic.”
The group’s social media activity has ultimately translated into real-world legislation that offers further protections to officers and first responders by categorizing them as a protected class for hate crimes — providing them with the same legal protections marginalized and disenfranchised identity groups have. Blue Lives Matter successfully leveraged their presence to push 14 states to introduce 32 Blue Lives Matter bills in 2017 and get bills put in front of Congress. Louisiana, Texas, and Kentucky have all passed such bills.
“Thirty-seven states already had laws imposing harsher crimes if you commit an offense against a police officer, so the laws they’re trying to get passed are more symbolic than anything,” Stevens said. “One of the responses from Blue Lives Matter is that, even though these laws already exist, they want people to know it’s not OK to assault or hunt down cops.”
While legislative efforts have occurred at an institutional level and are not solely the result of an active social media presence, the Blue Lives Matter Facebook community’s substantial membership, which is nearly seven times the size of the national Black Lives Matter Facebook community, helps get their voices heard, Stevens said.
Survival in a Post-Online World
Blue Lives Matter represents a group that is empowered. Conversely, sex workers are a group with few rights that recently became even fewer.
In February 2018, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) package of bills passed the House of Representatives. The bills sought to fight sex trafficking online by holding websites themselves accountable under threat of felony charges — Craigslist, Reddit, Google, and Twitter among them — but were so vaguely written and sweeping in scope that they would effectively function as an internet-wide ban on sex work, legal or otherwise.
Sex workers, who rely on digital platforms for their work as well as mutual-aid outreach and activism, had less than a month to mobilize online to fight the bills in the Senate. They pivoted their digital activism to focus entirely on the bills and orchestrated a massive social media campaign to fight it using the hashtags #LetUsSurvive and #SurvivorsAgainstSESTA, which were viewed 5 million times in the first four weeks.
“A lot of their effort was based on just keeping each other alive,” Coombes said.
Although they ultimately weren’t able to block the legislation — the bills passed the Senate 97-2 — they pivoted their efforts again to survival. They organized offline, forming support groups, developing safety plans for when accounts were taken down, and making sure everyone had an offline network to connect with. Sex workers also launched online safety skills training classes, where technology experts could teach them how to move their virtual private networks offshore, as well as “know your rights” workshops and basic tech skills training.
“Once the bills went through, the campaign turned into this massive mobilizing effort, with new groups forming across the whole country,” Coombes said. “We saw organizing in areas of the country where we had never seen it before. Sex workers are realizing they need to support each other and their communities in a way that’s removed from the internet.”
Social Movements in a Social Media World
Although the groups Stevens and Coombes study are highly disparate, both thus far have successfully used social media to organize and have translated that organization into real-world action that has demonstrated longevity and persistence beyond flash-in-the-pan trending hashtags.
“Effective movements are the ones that persist over time, and that’s what eventually makes for broad-scale changes like we saw with the Civil Rights Movement, which was able to win at the federal level and shift cultural ideas,” Futrell said. “Although not a panacea, social media is an essential tool in social movement efforts today.”