Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become as much a part of the racial-justice protests sweeping America as handmade signs, water bottles and face masks.
Besides helping activists flood the streets, monitor the police, mobilize supporters and raise money, mobile apps and social media platforms have brought the American public right to the front lines.
That includes moments when the police response crossed the line into blatant violent repression, demonstrating for us all the kind of casual violence that sparked the uprising in the first place. Without cellphone videos and social media, these protests wouldn't be happening at all.
Like protesters against government injustice in places like Tunisia or Hong Kong, America's activists have naturally turned to the technologies they already have in their pockets.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram apps already live on millions of our phones, and just as we use them to organize parties or (nowadays) Zoom calls with family and friends, protesters have put them to work filling America's streets.
While some are experienced organizers tapping into established activist networks, many others are just folks upset at the video of George Floyd being killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Big city protests get most of the media attention, and young activists in places like Washington, DC have employed the big three social platforms to turn out their peers en masse. In New York, for example, the @justiceforgeorgefloydnyc Instagram account is followed by tens of thousands of people and serves as a clearinghouse for upcoming protest-related events.
But I'm struck by the everyday Americans in out-of-the-way places mobilizing their neighbors. When a Nebraska town of 24,000 sees 300 people rally for racial justice, it's a big deal.
Often, a single organizer or a single Facebook post brings them out in public, demonstrating to their neighbors that at least some people in their community care. In mostly white and conservative small towns like the one I grew up in, that’s a really Big Deal.
Other digital tools have also played their roles. Downloads of encrypted communications apps like Telegram and Signal have spiked, as protesters work to hide their internal communications from the authorities.
The police-monitoring app Citizen follows police communications like a radio scanner, and though it was originally known as Vigilante and was criticized for "scare-mongering" about crime, protesters ironically now use it to follow along with police movements and tactics. Even humble Google Docs have played their role.
Away from the protests themselves, social media has kept people who can't or won't attend aware of what's happening. Besides the social feeds of major news outlets, Twitter has also given anonymous groups of young journalists an outlet to highlight stories from the protests, particularly those being ignored or distorted by mainstream media.
Recording artists and other celebrities have raised both awareness and money for the cause. Remote engagement can also equal remote involvement: when the Dallas, Texas, police department asked people to upload videos to help officers identify people involved in the protests, Korean pop music (K-pop) fans in the U.S. organized to post so much distracting content that they crashed the app.
As police all too often have confronted peaceful protesters with unsolicited violence, citizen videos have countered official lies with footage from the scene. In several cases, videos posted to social media have led to dismissals and criminal charges for the officers involved. Cellphone video started these protests, and cellphone video has helped America at large see what actually happens on the ground as they take place.
Social media naturally brings a dark side, too. As DC reeled from a night when window-breaking and looting followed hours of peaceful protests, disinformation about a #dcblackout spread, claiming that the authorities were blocking cellphone signals and social media platforms to stop the spread of information.
It was a lie, of course, as anyone glancing at their own phones on the scene could realize. So was the notion that Antifa activists were going to take over towns in Idaho, which brought local "militia" groups armed with rifles, pistols and shotguns out to confront — a phantom.
Russian and other nefarious actors may have played a role in campaigns like these, with an assist from Donald Trump, but we probably didn't need their “help." Many Americans on all sides are all too eager to spread juicy-but-sketchy stories without taking a moment to question them.
What comes next? With calls to "defund the police" likely to morph into initiatives to demilitarize them instead, we may see actual change in the way law enforcement operates in American communities.
With the protests sparking their equivalents around the world, we may see a global campaign to change the way governments police their citizens a long way from the United States. We may also see the triumph of a new organizing model, one that relies on loose networks of activists rather than individual charismatic leaders.
As he lay dying in the street, all George Floyd could have known was pain and fear. He couldn't have seen that his words would echo in streets far from Minneapolis, propelled by digital tools that make all of us activists-in-waiting. Are politicians and campaigns prepared for this new reality? As people wake up to their power, let's be ready to help them put it to work.
Colin Delany is the founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-four-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.