You would have to be living under a stone not to realise that the Black Lives Matter protests were taking place.
Sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody in the USA protests have swept the world leading to a murder charge and heightened tension.
I began to see these issues argued about on community Facebook groups between those for the protests and those against. Being someone fascinated with how groups work this it got me interested.
Looking at it, there’s been a four act play of narrative and counter-narrative in UK Facebook groups.
Act One: Death of a man in police custody
Pretty straight forward. A tragedy happens and reactions start.
Act Two: Protest sweeps the world and protests take place in the UK
They are global and tap into deep feelings. They even reach Leamington Spa.
Act Three: Counter protest: But what about Lee Rigby?
The far-right seek to undermine the protest against the death through whataboutism. This is the strategy of pointing to another thing instead. Memes supporting this pointing to the murder of Lee Rigby do this.
One was a bloody image of Rigby’s killer knife in hand minutes after the murder.
This one was more presentable:
Act Four: It gets interesting with the sharable content from Lee Rigby’s family
Lee Rigby’s Mum steps in and posts an image with text to the Lee Rigby Foundation Facebook page. She criticises the use of her son’s name and related images to attack the protests.
For me, this is the most interesting part.
By and large, the Rigby family have kept a distance from too many public statements about the murder of their son by IS-sympathising Muslim extreemists. Who can blame them? To lose a son in such a barbaric way must be crushing. So, the intervention was measured and definitive.
What it did do was provide ammunition to people angry at the attack on the Black Lives Matter protest. The far right meme’s thrust was clear: you can’t be a decent person if you protest this thing in America because you didn’t protest Lee Rigby’s death. This regained that ground.
But how did it play out on Facebook groups?
I got out my calculator and randomly trawled through 25 of the West Midlands Facebook groups I’m a member of. That included Warwickshire, Dudley, Herefordshire, Birtmingham and Stoke-on-Trent.
I was starting to see the to and fro of debate in groups and it was meme and counter meme that kept recurring.
Almost half the Facebook groups mapped were debating the issue of Black Lives Matter protests.
A third had a version of the right-wing Lee Rigby meme.
Less than a fifth had the Lee Rigby family counter-meme.
But, it was memes that captured the debate.
Table: Facebook groups in the West Midlands debating Black Lives Matter
So, what does this mean for public sector communicators?
My own take on this is simple. There’s a need to create shareable content with a message to fight fire with fire.
What was striking in the debates online was that it was all taking place in the group itself. None of the debates were pointing people towards other resources or websites. This is entirely typical of Facebook. Users have been encouraged by the platform to stay on the site and not to navigate away.
There are going to be times when you need to create content to win back the narrative.
But hang on, accessibility
And now the spanner in the works.
Debating this in the Public Sector Headspace Facebook group several people quite rightly pointed out the broad need to create accessible content. In other words, text on an image isn’t cool if it doesn’t have text in the body that can be read by a screen reader.
But hang on, the future of democracy
So, doesn’t that matter?
And this is where the $64,000 question comes in.
At what point does it become more important to tackle fake news than to serve accessible information?
And this, I think is a question that communicators must answer.
Sometimes you can do both. An image with text and an accompanying passage of text may be a compromise.
But broadly, I don’t think its a sliding scale of blanket ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
When for me its perfectly fine to share inaccessible information
In the aftermath of the Manchester Arena attack, Greater Manchester Police were swift in owning the story online. They posted to Twitter updates and presented them as images with text and a logo.
Like this one re-purposed by a local news account:
I know that some people will object to this and that’s fine. I respect that perspective but given the circumstances, I’m fine with this. Yes, this could be more accessible but against a backdrop of a terror attack I’d argue the importance of putting out timely information was the most pressing thing.
In video skills training, adding subtitles makes sense. But I get that in an emergency a piece to camera without delay is sometimes needed.
New legislation gives you a window
The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications Act) 2018 is coming into force on September 23 2020. This snappy law asks public sector to make accessible content on their website and any app they’ve commissioned and built themselves. But it makes a series of exemptions and one mentioned are third party sites. There’s an argument that social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter are third party sites. I’d like to hear the views of people who work in this area.
But, the $64,000 dollar question
It all comes back to this.
You need to be able to create shareable content and you need to work out when winning the argument is the most important thing. This is an entirely personal decision.
EDIT: I’ve been asked by email why I’ve used the phrase in this blog ‘debate’ when there is no debate, of course black lives matter. That’s an idea I’m sympathetic to. I used the word ‘debate’ recognising that there are people who don’t agree with the Black Lives Matter campaign which the survey of 25 Facebook groups confirms. However, I’ve upgraded that to argue as this reflects the tone of clashes I’ve seen. In a blog that looks at two rival opinions and the use of memes to play them out its important to recognise the fact there are two opposing sides. I’ve also been asked why I’ve cut straight from the death to stats. In a nutshell, after 12 years as a journalist I have a voice in my ear that tells me that nobody really cares what I think. But I have edited to point out the murder charge and heightened tensions. My own view is that I hope justice is served in this profound tragedy.