TECH
07/10/2015 03:23 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2017

How Black Twitter Helped Take Down The Confederate Flag

The story behind a hashtag that helped transform the nation's opinion at hyper-speed.
Win McNamee via Getty Images

The hashtag #TakeItDown didn’t begin with Charleston, or even the Confederate flag. Before last month, #TakeItDown had been used by an array of people, among them a sports fan objecting to a team banner and a musician promoting her debut single.   

But #TakeItDown has come to represent a single movement: the campaign, bred online and carried out in legislative offices, to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina's state capital. It may go down as, if not the biggest, then at least the quickest success of the loosely connected network of black Twitter users referred to as "Black Twitter." 

From what I can tell, this meaning of #TakeItDown emerged with a tweet from the user @lifeandmorelife at 11:47 p.m. on June 17, the same night that Dylan Roof is suspected to have opened fire on a bible study group in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people, including a state senator, in a racially motivated attack.

Loading a photograph of the South Carolina Capitol building with the Confederate flag flying prominently in the foreground, @lifeandmorelife tagged the state's U.S. senators, Lindsey Graham and Timothy Scott, with a direct order: "Take this oppressive rag off a taxpayer building." Then added "#TakeItDown" to the message.

One minute later, she tweeted a stronger statement:

  A 59-year-old New Yorker, @lifeandmorelife has a background in community organizing and identifies as part of the Black Twitter community. (Instead of her real name, she posts the username "BlackLivesMatter" under her Twitter handle.) Though her 1,661 Twitter followers aren’t the kind of numbers that usually inspire a revolution, her #TakeItDown tweets were quickly re-tweeted a few dozen times, spanning their way across other networks of people on the social media site.

It’s an easy line from Twitter to the national press. When MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes suggested, a day after the massacre, that South Carolina cover up the Confederate flag in front of its Statehouse, a tweeter confronted Hayes, writing, “No Chris, we should #TakeItDown.” Hours later, Hayes was demanding that South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford remove the flag, “a symbol of tyranny,” from government property. Quickly, everyone from Mitt Romney to Michael Moore was using the hashtag.

 Less than a week later, a #TakeItDown rally at the state capitol in Columbia had transformed the hashtag into an IRL  protest chant. 

Since the Charleston shooting massacre, #TakeItDown has been sounded at a steady clip across Twitter, peaking with 17,000 mentions (of #TakeItDown or #TakeItDownSC) in a single day on June 19. Since then, there’s been over 70,000 mentions of the hashtag, according to the social analytics site Topsy.

All of which has put on hyperspeed the debate over the meaning of the Confederate flag -- as either a symbol of the South, or a symbol of discrimination and one race's enslavement of another. It’s been 150 years since the flag was used to represent the South during the Civil War. In the last 50 years, ever since the flag was resurrected by Southerners unhappy with the Civil Rights movement, advocacy groups have tried to eliminate it. But in a matter of just a few weeks, a consensus has formed: The flag has become, as Ta Nehisi Coates has called it, “the flag of Dylan Roof” -- a powerful symbol of entrenched racism.

Seemingly overnight, public opinion on the flag shifted -- most prominently that of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. On the campaign trail in 2014, Haley called the state’s use of the Confederate flag “not a big deal.” But on Thursday she signed the bill to remove it and on Friday morning helped #TakeItDown.

National views on the flag seem to mirror Haley’s flip.  A recent poll by Public Policy Polling found that 64 percent of Americans thought the Confederate flag should not be hung on government property. Compare that to a poll from Gallup in 2000, when only 28 percent of respondents believed the flag was a symbol of racism.

It’s impossible to pinpoint how much of this shift comes courtesy of Black Twitter, and the speed that ideas like #TakeItDown can spread through linked communities and into the national consciousness. But in the last few years, as the violent slayings of young black men like Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown have aligned the network of black Twitter users on inflammatory topics, these links have grown stronger, and the pace at which trending hashtags make it to headlines has gotten quicker.

Trayvon Martin’s story didn't enter the national press until months after his slaying; it took just a few weeks for South Carolina's Confederate flag to fall.  

“Those in power can’t avoid these voices anymore, because we’re in a participation age,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, the nation’s largest social justice organization. “These tools give us the ability to speak loudly and not have to wait for traditional media to validate our ideas or demands.”   

As a movement, Black Twitter has been criticized for being diffuse and disorganized. Even Oprah called out this generation of activists in an interview with People: “What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want.'” But social media can create issues from an online consensus, which allows social justice groups to identify what's already important to their communities, rather than dictating from on high. Robinson embraced the Confederate flag debate, in part, because Color of Change members had already engaged with it.  

“Our members were emailing us and saying, ‘What are we gonna do about the flag,” said Robinson.

And the trends like #TakeItDown that thrive within Black Twitter’s incubator aren’t random. @lifeandmorelife told me that her decision to Tweet for the end of the state’s Confederate flag, was, at least partially, a savvy political strategy.

“It was the most opportune moment, because the world was grieving,” said @lifeandmorelife, who asked not to be identified by her real name, “Nobody likes to see people die, and no one likes to see people die when they’re going about their business in church.”

As a former resident of the South, she knew that South Carolina flew a Confederate flag at its capital and felt it was her duty to educate a younger generation “who might not understand what that flag meant,” she told me.

Sands Fish, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, said that the success of #TakeItDown materialized, at least in part, because there was an organized community ready to mobilize. “Black Twitter has become an established public essentially over the past year,” he said. Currently, Fish is working with the Mapping Police Violence project to identify the link between deaths of black people at the hands of the police, and national press attention.

“It don’t want to say it’s finding its voice, but it’s finding better branding,” he said of Black Twitter. “It’s become enough of an institution that people can refer to it -- it allows the mainstream media to know where to look in order to understand where the conversations are”

What Black Twitter so deftly accomplished on Friday was making a once niche opinion pervasive -- assembling an army of people to make the public aware of opinions that aren’t yet the status quo. It’s what digital activists have accomplished in campaigns like #BringHomeOurGirls, #BlackLivesMatter, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and lighter fare like #BeyonceThinkPieces. While other successes in the wake of police violence, Ferguson and the Baltimore Protests have been less concrete, with #TakeItDown the outcome is clear: The Confederate flag is down.

And while a symbol like the Confederate flag, rooted in history, may be a more comfortable topic to deal with than, say, police violence, or systemic racism, it's still a success for advocates. 

“Symbols alone won’t change the dynamics,” said Robinson. "But it’s important that if we are going to change the landscape that we change the symbols that people have to live under.”

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