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Online activism: a year in review

Social movements looked different during the pandemic. Here’s how four activists kept the pressure on.

activism concept
activism concept
GRACE HEEJUNG KIM

For the past year, people in the United States were supposed to live at a distance and keep to themselves to prevent the spread of a deadly virus. At the same time, there was a nationwide reckoning on systemic racism and inequality, a contentious election, and a rise in racist violence. The activism that met those crises was often organized wholly or partially online, sometimes by young people experimenting with creative new ways to build social movements. We spoke to four people in their 20s who, through the internet, became viral voices, key organizers, and vital resources over the past year. Their stories are shared here in their own words and have been edited and condensed for clarity. 


Carlisa Johnson, 29

Carlisa Johnson
COURTESY PHOTO

Georgia
Johnson created a widely shared Google Doc with links to educational material, contact details for public officials, ways to take action, and information on the Black Lives Matter movement in the days after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. The document became a resource for activists, particularly those new to the movement. 

During last summer’s iteration of Black Lives Matter, a lot of people were entering activism for the first time. On the personal side, we were in the midst of a pandemic and I live with someone who is very immune compromised, so I couldn’t go to protests, which is what I usually do. And I felt very helpless. So I needed to figure out a way that I could feel like I was actually having some sort of impact. 

The people who are directly around me, those who I interact with most on social media—they are ingrained in the world of activism in the same way that I am. There weren’t necessarily private conversations where people were having these eye-opening moments or reckonings, where they were like, “Oh my gosh, something needs to be done. I don’t know what to do.” The people I’m in community with—they know what to do. 

"I needed to figure out a way that I could feel like I was actually having some sort of impact."

Carlisa Johnson

This document was something, I felt, for my friends to share out with their family members and their friends. That specifically speaks to me as a Black person. Most Black people didn’t need to have these conversations because they already know this. And a lot of my community is Black people.

I have a lot of academics as friends. I created my post, and my call to actions, on my personal Facebook and made it public, and then my friends shared it. That’s how it snowballed. It went from campus to campus. I have no clue how this happened, but it started to go to celebrities as well. So the cast of [the TV series] Riverdale started sharing it. I noticed that there were a lot of teenagers asking if it was okay to share it, which is a demographic that I have no access to.

It’s kind of cliché now, but this activism, working toward correcting inequities—you have to operate as a chorus. When one voice goes out, there are others who are still sustaining. And so even though my document was live during that specific time period when so much was happening, it was happening so fast, and I just couldn’t sustain it toward the end. But there are so many other documents that exist that have created this network that is still flourishing today.


Fiona Lowenstein, 27

Fiona Lowenstein
COURTESY PHOTO

New York
Lowenstein is the founder and editor in chief of Body Politic, a media organization and wellness collective based in New York that hosts a Slack support group for people with covid-19, including those with long-term symptoms. It now has more than 10,000 members and gets about 50 to 100 new members each week. 

The group was the meeting place for the Patient-Led Research Collaborative, a global collective of covid-19 patients who are recording and sharing data about their own symptoms, and which has begun to publish research on long-term covid. 

I got sick very early on when the pandemic hit the United States. My first symptoms were on March 13, 2020. I was sick before there was a comprehensive symptom list from the CDC, before there was any information about long-term recoveries or young people getting severely sick. Those first couple of weeks that I was sick and in the hospital, I just lacked a lot of information. 

The support group started as an emotional support group. People with covid and people with long covid really needed a place to talk to each other. But then it quickly became an info-­sharing group, because we were lacking information from our doctors and from health agencies. We were just sort of talking to each other and trying to figure it out ourselves. The group was on Instagram actually at the time, as a DM chat. It had maybe, like, 25 to 30 people in it.

A lot of people with myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome, reached out to us kind of early on in the pandemic. They’re, for the most part, people who have long-term symptoms following viral infections. They reached out to provide guidance on how to navigate an illness like this but also on health, advocacy, and how to interact with health agencies. 

Activism Covid-19
GRACE HEEJUNG KIM

I think that really informed the way that we moved forward, and made sure that we were always contextualizing long covid within these broader long-term illnesses and chronic illnesses. This is not entirely new. There’s actually a whole history of this stuff.

Our support group is really just for covid patients, but we do have a special advocacy channel where we have some users from other chronic illness and disability and health justice organizations that talk about some of these more intersectional issues. 

For those experiencing or recovering from covid-19, we have channels for almost every system of the body: reproductive, neurological, muscular, circulatory, gastrointestinal. That’s where we’ll discuss very specific symptoms. We also have channels for specific communities. We have three private channels that you join by request: a BIPOC channel, an LGBTQ channel, and a channel for medical professionals.

And then there are channels that are a little bit more geared toward people’s specific mental-­health needs. We have a Victories channel. That’s where you post everything from “I took a shower for the first time in a week” to “I reunited with my family after six months.” We also have a channel called Need to Vent, which is kind of the opposite—it’s where you go when you just need to really spill your guts on how you’re feeling and how things are going.


tiktok Rynstarr
COURTESY IMAGE

Erynn Chambers, 28

North Carolina
Chambers saw some bad statistics about crime in Black neighborhoods being used to support and spread racist narratives on TikTok—and, having started building a following on the app, decided to debunk them in song: 

"Black neighborhoods are overpoliced, so of course they have higher rates of crime. 

And white perpetrators are undercharged, so of course they have lower rates of crime. 

And all those stupid stats you keep using are operating off a small sample size. 

So shut up! Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up!"

The song rocketed around the Internet and was shared widely beyond ­TikTok last summer, eventually earning more than 2 million views. Chambers—
@Rynnstar on TikTok—has continued to be active and popular on the app, with 720,000 followers.
 

It was no great inspiration or anything like that. I was just standing on my porch one day last summer and I sang a random tune that popped into my head and hit Post. The next day, it had really taken off, and I was stunned. And then another creator, Alex Engelberg, made a remix, a choral remix of it—basically a barbershop quartet. That really made it take off. 

Maybe it was just the right place, right time, you know? People found it snappy, especially with the barbershop remix. Very few people plan to go viral, but everything that I’ve done that has gone viral was completely unexpected.

I use TikTok knowing that it’s not the ideal platform. It’s where I have the most followers. But it’s been pretty good. I’ve met a lot of people that are friends now through TikTok. I made a lot of connections, which has been really good, really encouraging. Honestly, that’s probably the biggest reason why I still do it, because a lot of times it’s emotionally exhausting. 

TikTok kind of pigeonholes a lot of Black creators into “You can only talk about this one thing.” It’s frustrating how TikTok seems to pick and choose what they let be seen on the platform. I really try to promote and push when I do other things, because I want people to know that I’m more than just political videos they share with their aunts. I’ve got a lot of interests. I want to be able to talk about my random hobbies as much as any white creator. I also enjoy talking about linguistics. I like talking about musical theater. I like talking about history. And I don’t want people to think that if they follow me for one thing, they’re never going to see anything else.


Sunnie Liu, 22

Sunnie Liu
COURTESY PHOTO

Texas
In the summer of 2020, Sunnie Liu, an undergraduate student at Yale, was part of a small group of young Chinese-­Americans who wanted to find ways to address anti-Blackness within their own community. So they co-founded the WeChat Project. 

WeChat, a Chinese app that is kind of like a social network, messaging service, and sharing app in one, is extremely popular with the Chinese diaspora in the US. The project creates content that seeks to counteract what is often overwhelmingly right-wing discourse, news, and misinformation shared there. So far, the project has published more than 25 bilingual articles that have reached hundreds of thousands of readers across social media. 

There’s not that many young people of the Chinese diaspora on WeChat. And there’s very few progressive voices on there. So even though conservatives are a minority among Chinese-Americans and Asian-Americans in general, right-wing discourse and political information really dominate the WeChat platform.

The way that WeChat works is that political news usually spreads from media accounts into group chats. These group chats often just end up being echo chambers for spreading sensationalism, conspiracy theories, and unfortunately lots of right-wing rhetoric. 

The vast majority of the active WeChat users in the States are members of the Chinese diaspora who are first-generation immigrants. And so they’re largely older than us. They’re probably part of our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. For the Chinese diaspora, there’s not only this generational divide; there’s often also a language and a cultural divide. At the dinner table, you have parents who are most comfortable speaking Mandarin, and the kids are most comfortable speaking English. And so the kid could be trying to express some complicated political idea in English, but then the parents have no idea what’s going on, and vice versa when the parents are speaking Mandarin. 

The WeChat Project is trying to bridge the gap by starting conversations between the generations online.

They have very different traumas that they’ve experienced in either generation, too, with the kids growing up and experiencing racism, perhaps since they were five and entered into American schools, versus the parents growing up in China, where there’s not really the same racism. But they might have lived through the Cultural Revolution. We’re trying to bridge that gap by starting these conversations between the generations online in a language that meets the parents and grandparents of the Chinese diaspora where they are.  

The main source of news on WeChat comes from media accounts. WeChat calls them “official accounts.” They’re essentially microblogs that publish articles people can read and share and discuss, and like and comment on. We’re out there publishing with some of the rare progressive media accounts on WeChat. 

Because we’re a rare voice of the children’s and grandchildren’s generation, a lot of people in the older generations are curious because of these cultural and language barriers. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of miscommunication between the kids and their parents, and the grandparents and the grandchildren. They’re curious what their children are thinking. 

GRACE HEEJUNG KIM

In response to anti-Asian violence, for us, especially on WeChat but also in general—honestly, throughout the news media, we felt like most coverage of the topic was missing class analysis and gender analysis. Especially after Atlanta, this is something that all Asian-Americans need to worry about. This is an attack on our lives, on our safety. 

But if you look at who was actually attacked, the vast majority of these people were the most vulnerable in our communities. They are low income. They are elderly. Often, they’re immigrants who do not speak English. And these are very different from the people who are most visible and vocal in response. And so we wanted to also think about the root cause of this, not as singular incidents by racist people, but as the product of structural, systemic racism and classism.

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