Being A Good Online Ally in Troubled Times

Ben FreelandUncategorized

Tony McDade. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. The list goes on.

These are but four notable names of people whose lives were tragically cut short due to the colour of their skin. As I write, major American cities are seething with angry protests over police brutality and racism, and the situation shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

Anyone with an ounce of compassion who has been following the news feels outrage. The question then becomes: what to do about it?

The violent killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020 ignited a wave of protests in Minneapolis and cities across and beyond the United States. This has led to a wide range of online responses. From blackout images on Instagram and Facebook to actively taking on those who insist on saying “all lives matter” and otherwise undermining the cause of anti-racism.

Many of America’s biggest corporations, from Facebook and Twitter to Nike and Disney, have already taken decisive stands in favour of the Black Lives Matter protests. Facebook notably made a $10 million to a range of anti-racism groups, although the company has faced criticism of its handling of the crisis within its platform. Netflix took an especially strong stance, stating on its Twitter feed that “to be silent is to be complicit.”

So, what are tech companies⁠—specifically those without the financial clout of a Facebook or a Netflix⁠—to do to express their solidarity? Here are a few ideas.

Artists paint a mural of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Photo Credit: CNN

Read before you react and follow activists’ cues.

It ought to go without saying that companies (and individuals) need to do their homework before sounding off on a topic. But given the number of completely insensitive, tone-deaf responses we’ve seen from companies in the past on these issues, it bears repeating. There exists a whole galaxy of online resources on how to be a good ally, including a wonderful Medium post by Corinne Shutack entitled 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.

Keep your product or service out of it.

Nike⁠—always a textbook example of how to address social issues constructively⁠—set the example once again by turning its own marketing slogan upside down, tweeting “for once, don’t do it,” all the while steering clear of its product. By contrast, French fashion house Louis Vuitton found itself in hot water for a monumentally insensitive Instagram post by one of its leading designers, who lamented the demise of streetwear with an image of rioters.

In other words, don’t make it about YOU.

Don’t overuse or misuse popular hashtags.

In response to this week’s #BlackoutTuesday, many activists implored social media users to not use the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. Overusing such an important hashtag makes it completely impossible to intelligently follow news related to (in this case) the George Floyd killing and responses to it, which is, in principle, what hashtags are for. One can type the words “Black Lives Matter” in a post without being a hashtag hog.

Put your money where your mouth is.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, tech companies across North America, including game designers Humble, Ubisoft, Devolver, Square Enix, Itch.io, and Games Done Quick have made sizable contributions to Black Lives Matter-related causes. At the end of the day, the best way for companies to support anti-racism organizations is to donate funds to said organizations, as charitable donations are the lifeblood of social change.

Local companies looking to donate to causes related to racial justice are encouraged to give to the Canadian Association of Civil Liberties as well as to the many other organizations nationwide that fight for racial justice. The local Edmonton chapter of Black Lives Matter, reachable by email at [email protected], is also a valuable source of information of how to help and where to donate.

Look inward.

One of the problems with online activism in the wake of a George Floyd-type tragedy is that once the protests subside, people tend to forget about the whole thing and go back to business-as-usual. Instead, companies should be encouraged to take this historical moment to look at their own hiring, their own business plans, and so on. People should ask themselves tough questions about how they themselves are contributing to positive social change.

Black Lives Matter means⁠—should mean⁠—that they always matter, regardless of what story is dominating the 24-hour news cycle. For a company to demonstrate that their commitment to a cause is sincere and not simply a case of social media virtue signalling, commitment to positive and important causes needs to be sustained.

In this case it means looking to support black-led clients, subcontractors, and so on. Also, look at the diversity in your own boardrooms, back rooms, and cubicles. Does your company have a policy in regards to diversity? Do your business goals align with and/or support the calls to action of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission? These are important questions for any business leader to ask themselves.

Solidarity does not end when the protesters go home and the blackout avatar pictures disappear. Racial injustice will continue to plague our societies, including here in Canada. We all have an ongoing role to play in generating real, lasting social change.