The power of citizen grassroots journalism in a digital age

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Marie Boran
A black and white cut out image of a person holding their hat aloft in their left hand while operating a vintage style camera.

In an era of misinformation and marginalization, how can creators responsibly use their platforms to drive authentic social change?

As someone on the frontlines of activism, podcaster and civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson offered hard-won insights on the power and pitfalls of modern media. DeRay rose to prominence organizing protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting dead of Black teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in 2014.

The creator of Pod Save The People explained how, at the time, Twitter (now X) enabled real-time organizing: “I could tweet ‘be at the corner of so and so’ and 3,000 people would come. By the time that police figured it out, we’d already done the thing.”

“Critical mass never begins at 100; it always begins at one or two.”

– DeRay Mckesson, podcaster and civil rights activist

However, today’s fragmented social media landscape poses new challenges. DeRay tries to carefully vet sources, but admits “it’s now harder to separate truth from fiction”.

DeRay pointed to how, in 2014, activists relied on makeshift tools including the now-defunct Vine to share snippets of protests. But viral video in a TikTok era seems to be less about breaking news or citizen journalism and more about dance trends or life hacks.

And the incessant quest for virality means misinformation now spreads rapidly. As the podcaster bluntly stated, “people will post things because they want a million likes”.

How can would-be change-makers find a voice across platforms that seem, at times, filled with clickbait nonsense? Effective activism requires simplifying language to make concepts resonate more broadly, advised DeRay.

The civil rights activist avoids arguable inflammatory anti-police rhetoric by relating issues of excessive force to children. As DeRay explained, “Do you need a person with a gun to tell a 10-year-old to stop screaming? Do you need a person with a gun to tell a kindergartener to sit down? You don’t”.

It can seem like an uphill battle in the face of growing alt-right voices and hate speech on platforms such as X, but journalists and creators who want to make a difference must speak out, said the podcaster: “Remember that somebody’s always watching and somebody’s always listening.”

Recalling the early days of organising meetups in Ferguson living rooms, DeRay noted that “critical mass never begins at 100; it always begins at one or two”. But even isolated voices can precipitate big
change when amplified at the right moment.

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Main image: A black and white vintage image of a photographer (Web Summit)

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