University of Missouri protests gave birth to dozens more across the U.S., powered by social media

Students at the University of Idaho tweeted this photo of solidarity to fellow protesters at the University of Missouri.
Students at the University of Idaho tweeted this photo of solidarity to fellow protesters at the University of Missouri. Twitter

When student protesters laid down on cold, wet sidewalks earlier this month at Ithaca College in New York, the revolution had already started in Columbia, Missouri, nearly 1,000 miles away.

Racial tensions had been building for months at the private school in New York’s Finger Lakes region. In September the school newspaper wrote about two altercations public safety officers had with students of color.

Then in early October during a panel discussion a white male alumnus reportedly referred to another panelist, a woman of color, as “savage” several times.

Students were angered by what they considered the administration’s slow response to their complaints about the incident. So, they borrowed a page from the Mizzou protest playbook.

“With University of Missouri’s president stepping down, we demand (Ithaca President Tom) Rochon to do the same,” the students said in a social media post.

The success of the Missouri protesters in bringing about the resignation of two key administrators, including MU System president Tim Wolfe, has emboldened students nationwide.

“They got what they wanted,” JeffriAnne Wilder, an associate sociology professor at the University of North Florida, told the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.

“If we have communities of color and marginalized (people) be specific with their demands…we might be further along in addressing our race issues.”

As news of the efforts in Columbia spread quickly through Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and other social media, students harboring grievances over racial injustices, high tuition and other issues at their own schools have protested in support:

▪ At Yale, students protested after allegations surfaced that a fraternity had barred black women from a party the night before Halloween and after a Yale administrator (in an email about offensive Halloween costumes) seemed to suggest that acts of cultural appropriation were free speech expressions. Grievances went even deeper from minority students who said they felt excluded at the school.

▪ At Claremont McKenna College in California, student protesters forced the resignation of the dean of students, Mary Spellman, with protests and a hunger strike. In October, Spellman responded to an essay in the student newspaper, written by a student from a working-class Mexican family, by saying she and her staff were “working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don't fit our CMC mold.” Those three words – “the CMC mold” – became a rallying cry for protesters who said they feel marginalized on campus.

▪ At Duke, more than 100 students, faculty and administrators protested and publicly aired grievances in solidarity with Mizzou. Problems mentioned: A death threat directed at a gay student, a female student having “monkey noises” yelled at her on campus and frustration over how slowly administration responds to acts of reported intolerance.

▪ At Harvard, a new group of black student activists describes itself as “a movement of students calling for the decolonization of our campus, the symbols, the curriculum and the history of Harvard Law School.” The group wants Harvard to replace the law school’s crest - the same coat-of-arms used by slave owner Isaac Royall Jr., whose estate helped establish Harvard Law. The move has met backlash: Someone recently defaced portraits of black professors at the law school with black tape.

▪ At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, a group of protesters at a town hall meeting on campus last week – some of whom held a sign saying “UNC Stands with Mizzou” – issued a list of demands that included eliminating tuition and using SAT tests for admission purposes.

The MU protests provide communications experts a textbook case of how social media can power a protest movement. Students from coast to coast have rallied under the hashtags #InSolidarityWithMizzou and #WeStandWithMizzou.

“What is unique about these issues is how social media has changed the way protests take place on college campuses,” Tyrone Howard, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA, recently told The Los Angeles Times.

“A protest goes viral in no time flat. With Instagram and Twitter, you're in an immediate news cycle. This was not how it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Social media can build a movement at remarkable speed, according to researchers at the New York University Social Media and Political Participation.

They can help protest groups recruit new members, encourage people to participate, and once a protest is in full swing social media can spread information.

Social media can also trigger feelings in people, one of the NYU researchers, political professor Joshua Tucker, wrote in The Washington Post.

For instance the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter that sprang from the Ferguson protests created a strong group identity, sociologists say.

Hashtags have become modern-day battle flags in the high-tech era of protest. Earlier this month college students nationwide protesting high student loan debt rallied under #MillionStudentMarch.

One of the more popular hashtags to spring out of the Mizzou protests has been #blackoncampus, which inspired tweets like this:

In September, students at Howard University turned #TakeBackHU into a trending topic on Twitter.

They caught the attention of The Washington Post with “a gush of complaints on social media” about problems at the historically black university in D.C.

They tweeted about air conditioning breaking down around campus, high tuition, mold in dorms and bureaucratic run-arounds, according to the Post.

Tweeted one student: “Needed my transcript sent for a scholarship just to find out the registrar ‘forgot to mail it out’ & made me miss my deadline.”

The Black Liberation Collective, a new coalition of student groups across the country, is using Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr to coalesce and organize the varied demands from around the country.

The Black Liberation Collective – led by about 10 student activists, some of whom attend MU - launched its inaugural drive with the Mizzou protests.

Last week the collective organized a national “day of action” of rallies and protests at campuses from Berkeley to Michigan State.

A key way to get the word out? Twitter, with the hashtag #StudentBlackOut.