Social Media Activism: Sandra Bland, Police Brutality and #BlackLivesMatter

By Kimberlee Morrison Comment


On July 10, Sandra Bland was found dead in a Texas jail cell three days following a routine traffic stop. The police claimed Bland committed suicide, but her sister disputed this claim, and Sandra Bland has become the latest face in the movement against police brutality.

Skepticism about the circumstances surrounding Bland’s death began circulating on social media, using the hashtags #SandraBland, #SayHerName, #IfIDieinPoliceCustody and #BlackLivesMatter.

Along with the skepticism, videos were circulated through social channels: such as the dashcam video of the traffic stop, which seemed to raise more questions than answers, and videos of Bland speaking out against police brutality.

In the past year, social data intelligence company Talkwalker found more than 6.9 million mentions on social media of #BlackLivesMatter, with spikes around Dec. 1 (after the death of Eric Garner), April 27 (after the death of Freddie Gray) and July 20 (Bland).


In the wake of her death, Bland became known as an activist in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and videos revealed her belief in the power of social media to affect change. In one video, said to be released released shortly before her death, Bland said idealistically:

This thing that I hold in my hands, this telephone, this camera, it is quite powerful. Social media is powerful. We can do something with this. If we want to make a change, we can really, truly make it happen.

The controversy surrounding Bland’s death has led to a revival of the #SayHerName hashtag, which has been mentioned on social channels more than 716,400 times from May 1 through now.

sayhernameThe #SayHerName hashtag gained traction in May, but was much more widely used following Bland’s death. Talkwalker found that the demographic breakdown of #SayHerName has been 58.3 percent female, 41.7 percent male.

Here are some of the most influential people tweeting #SayHerName:


The #BlackLivesMatter movement was launched by Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors following the trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2013. When the not-guilty verdict was announced, Garza posted a passionate message on Facebook which she closed with:

Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.

Her friend Cullors saw the message and reposted using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Later, the two discussed organizing a campaign around this idea.

Garza told The Guardian:

A call to action. To make sure we are creating a world where black lives actually do matter.

Talkwalker also compiled a table of the most influential people tweeting #BlackLivesMatter:


Since the Zimmerman verdict, there have been several other high profile stories of police brutality, notably Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In every case, social media became both the engine for raising awareness and an outlet for outrage. In fact, #BlackLivesMatter has taken on a life of its own, being used by and become the rallying cry for what is being referred to as a new civil rights movement.

According to the Guardian:

The new movement is powerful yet diffuse, linked not by physical closeness or even necessarily by political consensus, but by the mobilising force of social media. A hashtag on Twitter can link the disparate fates of unarmed black men shot down by white police in a way that transcends geographical boundaries and time zones. A shared post on Facebook can organise a protest in a matter of minutes. Documentary photos and videos can be distributed on Tumblr pages and Periscope feeds, through Instagrams and Vines. Power lies in a single image. Previously unseen events become unignorable.

This isn’t the first time social media has been used as part of a social activism campaign. In 2014, social media hashtags were used to raise awareness for a host of causes, to great effect. #BlackLivesMatter is yet another case in point, proving that social media is the great connector and a powerful tool in the hands of activists.

Image courtesy of a katz /