Smartphones, social media as tools of Black liberation

Photo courtesy of Atria Books

The disturbing graphic video taken by then-17-year-old Darnella Frazier in May 2020 that showed George Floyd’s final minutes of life was viewed and shown repeatedly around the world. Similarly, smartphones and other mobile devices are now being used to visually confirm police violence against Blacks and people of color in this country. 

This is the entry point to “Seen and Unseen: Technology, Social Media, and the Fight for Racial Justice” by Marc Lamont Hill and Todd Brewster (Atria Books, Simon, and Schuster), released on May 3.

The new book discusses, among many things, how cell phones and social media have “dramatically changed the visibility of Black lives… Not only have they opened up opportunities for racial justice, they have also energized the communications of those who would undermine justice and promote racism,” says its press release.

Hill, an award-winning journalist and frequent social commentator on various television networks, is the Steve Charles Chair in Media, Cities and Solutions at Temple University. He has authored or co-authored six books.  

Co-author Brewster, a veteran journalist and historian who formerly worked as a senior producer for ABC News, has directed two documentaries.

In a recent MSR phone interview, Hill warned that videos and images shot by ordinary citizens “are not silver bullets. They don’t solve all the problems. They don’t fix all of our issues.

“It’s not enough to just have footage,” he continued. “We have to have a society that’s capable of responding to that footage in a responsible fashion.”

Marc Lamont Hill
Photo courtesy of Atria Books

Frazier’s courageous act falls in line with the historical footsteps of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, who each used photographs to show the humanity and the dignity of Black people. “This isn’t new,” said Hill. “We fell on the shoulders of a long tradition of ancestors with new media and technology. 

“Whether it was Frederick Douglass or Ida B. Wells, whether it was Dr. King in the evening news, whether it was Mamie Till in Jet Magazine—we need tools, media platforms, and technologies as a means of helping us get free.”

After his freshman year at Morehouse College, Hill dropped out due to too much hanging out and getting in trouble. He later finished his undergraduate work at Temple (B.S. in education and Spanish, 2000) and obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia native admitted to often being aptly described as a controversial figure.  

“My job is to disrupt the status quo,” Hill said. “If I weren’t controversial, then it would mean I’d be going along with the norm, and the norm is not doing anything to help vulnerable people in this country.”

In recent years, lies and misinformation have been more the norm than the exception, and the truth is too often questioned and dismissed.

“I’ve never been big on ‘capital T’ truth,” said Hill. “I think we all are fighting to figure out our own fallible truth and to wrestle with what the truth is. But at the end of the day, the notion of truth has been stretched almost to the point that it is unrecognizable.

“So, we got to find a way to recover that, to not allow people to trick us into believing that things are what they are not.”