The revolution will be televised. But first, you will be able to see it on Twitter and Facebook Live.
This week, two high-profile killings in the U.S. of black men by police exploded into public view after witnesses filmed videos of the incidents on their cellphones and shared them on social-media platforms. Early Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge, La., a 37-year-old by the name of Alton Sterling was being arrested outside of a convenience store when officers shot him at close range. Hours later, a horrific video of the killing surfaced online, spawning protests and a move by the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.
The footage joined a small but rapidly growing collection of bystander videos of black males killed by (primarily white) men in uniform, including Walter Scott, who was shot in the back as he was fleeing a South Carolina cop in April of last year; Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back by a Bay Area transit cop, while he too was on the ground; and Eric Garner of Long Island, whose friend filmed officers placing him into a chokehold until he famously moaned, "I can't breathe." (A security camera captured a video of a Cleveland police officer killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November, 2014.)
The proliferation of the videos, and the fuel they have provided to the Black Lives Matter movement, echoes the linchpin role that social media played across many Middle East dictatorships through 2011. But while Twitter and Facebook were used during the Arab Spring to co-ordinate protests, and YouTube was used to broadcast sometimes grisly images to the world, platforms for streaming live video such as Twitter's Periscope – and especially Facebook Live – are allowing members of the African-American community to bring their lived experience to viewers with an unprecedented gut-wrenching immediacy.
Nowhere was that more clear than in a video, broadcast Wednesday night on Facebook's three-month-old Live platform, by Lavish Reynolds as her boyfriend Philando Castile lay bloodied across the front seat of his car, after a Roseville, Minn., police officer conducting a traffic stop allegedly shot him four times. Apparently within seconds of the shooting, Ms. Reynolds turned on the stream and, with the self-assurance now common among users of social media, began narrating her circumstances.
As of late afternoon Thursday, the 10-minute segment had been started more than four million times on Facebook alone, where Live videos can be seen after their initial broadcast. (Still, in a move which some said was a reminder that users of social media remain at the mercy of corporate policies, the video disappeared for a time, due to what Facebook vaguely called "a technical glitch," before being restored with a warning about "disturbing content." And some videos of the Alton Sterling killing have been taken down from YouTube due to their graphic nature.)
When protests erupted in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody, demonstrators recorded Vine videos and shot live Periscope streams, in part to ensure their own safety and reputation.
And by bringing attention to their cause through the self-made broadcasts, they exert pressure on traditional media to cover their movement. But media outlets that hesitate – even if they are simply trying to verify the authenticity of videos they spot online – can also come in for criticism that hints at why marginalized communities are using social media to get their stories out.
This week, a handful of protesters demonstrated outside WTOK in Meridian, Miss., after the station took five days to air a video that appears to show a young black man being beaten in a racially charged attack. The station said it aired the video only "after verifying its authenticity and learning some of the facts regarding it." Protesters were unmoved by the explanation. During a press conference held outside the station, one man bluntly told a reporter: "You're supposed to report all news, not just your news."
In his iconic 1970 song, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron warned armchair warriors they would have to hit the streets to witness the impending social unrest, because commercial TV networks had no interest in covering the upheaval. "The revolution will not go better with Coke / The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath," he wrote, but Though he was a social visionary, he could not have foreseen a day when corporate media such as Facebook would be able to monetize the unrest.
"The revolution will be live," he declared. And now it is.
And it's streaming now to a phone near you.