“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”: A commentary on youth viewing a revolution through social media.

17-year old Ell May reflects on the role played by social media in radicalising a generation of young people.

“There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay”

Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 spoken word hit sparked mass social commentary, highlighting the inconsistencies between the published media and the true revolution happening on the streets of America at the time. Today, of course, not much has changed; there has been a state of constant revolution since the civil rights movement, but the mainstream media still enjoys obscuring the truth, and pigs are still brutalising people of colour in broad daylight. There is, however, a new factor at play since Scott-Heron’s poem emerged: social media.

As a young white person brought up with every form of social media at my fingertips, I have been witness to the wonders and horrors of the internet alike. For a long time, like many other like me, I sat with the immense privilege of the revolution ending when I logged off. I had no idea the extent to which it was prevalent in society- I was a child. I started paying attention in around 2018/19, as I drew closer to leaving school, and I started getting involved in 2020. Without the internet, and by extension social media, I’m not sure when I would have woken up to the true injustice of society, despite always having been aware of it to some degree- as someone from a working-class background that is inherent to my experience of life. On the 16th of March, 2020, the UK went into a national lockdown, leading to all interpersonal connection and communication to become digital. I began to spend the majority of my days scrolling endlessly.

On May 25th, a video appeared in my feed. It featured an unarmed black man begging for his life as an armed white man knelt on his throat for nine minutes and twenty nine seconds. I watched as George Floyd was killed, and a wave of powerlessness at a level I had never felt before flooded my senses. Here I am, freshly 16, a child. A witness, I was transfixed and unable to do anything about it. If I felt so disgusted and distraught, I could not even begin to imagine how a black person, especially a black person my age, would feel.

“There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay”

But I was watching it. For days I couldn’t avoid in on the news; it replayed in my head. I was forced to confront reality.

Following the murder of George Floyd, I attempted to fuel my sense of helplessness into something more productive. I, like many other people my age, began sharing colourful infographics about police brutality and white supremacy. What else could I do? Unable to vote, lockdown prohibiting protest- young people today are radical, but we are powerless. I started doing research into the systemic nature of racism, and my role in it as a white person. I realised the colourful infographics and black squares were doing nothing. What else could I do? Every day videos of revolts on the streets of America appeared on my feed, labelled as riots by the media, were making me angrier and angrier. I read theory and began to see the role capitalism plays in the perpetuation of systemic oppression, and the history of colonialism. But I was stuck inside.

“It was a bit crazy because the height of it was over lockdown and you’d have a warped sense of reality from not leaving your house and then see some video of people being brutally beaten online.” Sophie Phillips, 17

“Using social media a lot has made me really paranoid I guess. Like I would have obsessions over stuff I would never have had before. […] It feels kind of heart dropping to see all the stuff that happens and I’m not directly involved.” Ellie Brown, 17

“Last year in particular was so weird cause there was so much protest and unrest but because of lockdown I just kind of had to sit down and watch it happen? And the handing of those lockdowns was yet another thing we were powerless against cause we see the people in charge make so many wrong decisions. […] Pretty much ALL my friends have been politically engaged for years but whenever there’s some kind of election or referendum all we get to do is keep our fingers crossed? then inevitably watch power go to old right-wing people and it sucks because I know that doesn’t reflect what young people want.” Evan Firman, 17

It is clear to me I’m not alone in my frustration. I’m surrounded by friends and colleagues desperate for change but powerless to enact it. As I draw closer to my 18th birthday, I look forward to finally being able to cast my vote, use my voice. But I feel for people younger than me, sat watching the revolution though their phones.

“I mean I’m glad things were easily gaining awareness and people had more resources to educate themselves from […] but it hurt to see so much performative activism and another side of the internet where people would feel free to share their malicious opinions ad even gain popularity from that.” Nafisa Ahmed, 17

All is not lost.

“It makes me feel very excited!! I feel that the way we utilise social media gives us huge power as a generation and we have access to so much more information which means we can do a lot more. Plus I feel like our generation has been politically aware from younger” Olive Bridgers, 18

We have to be optimistic that seeing our elders protest and fight for our futures through our phone screens inspires us. We have endless information at our fingertips, and one can only hope that websites and perhaps articles such as this one can incentivise young people, particularly young white people, to educate themselves. To be the change they want to see. In a 1990 interview, Gil Scott-Heron says that “The first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move.” (via openculture.com). The revolution can be filmed, but it exists primarily in the mind- I hope that social media can be a tool that sparks that change in the youth, the way it did in me.

(Names changed for sake of privacy)

Ell May

Photo Credit: Leonhard Lenz on wikicommons made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.