Last Friday, social media activists met with students and faculty in INTN 1020 for a discussion called “Civil Rights in the Age of Social Media.” The event was hosted by UCR’s School of Public Policy (SPP), co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and moderated by associate dean of the SPP, Karthick Ramakrishnan.

The activists who attended the event included Dexter Thomas, a UCR ‘06 alumni, PhD candidate in East Asian Studies at Cornell University and writer for the Los Angeles Times, Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed, LA-based writer and host of the “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” podcast, Jason Fong, 16 year-old progressive writer on his blog, “Jason Fong Writes” and Rafika “Fefe” Alani, UCR first-year political science and film major whose senior portrait quote, “Only reason I wear this is to give you females a chance,” referencing her hijab went viral and gained the attention of national news outlets. Sharis Delgadillo, co-host of “Latino Rebels Radio,” a podcast for Latino-focused news and culture site Latino Rebels, was unable to attend the event due to traffic.

Ramakrishnan opened the discussion by asking the panelists about how social media has changed the dynamic of the social activism landscape.

“Even though social media has a bit of a negative and immature connotation … I think it’s more political. (Twitter) went from tweeting something irrelevant to becoming a very politicized site where you can use your voice to talk about things people aren’t used to hearing,” asserted Alani.

Ahmed spoke about the legacy of media created by activists in the U.S. and referenced the Black Panther Party newsletters, as well as the Gidra, an underground Asian-American magazine that was founded by UCLA students in 1969 and newsletters disseminated by the Ghadar Party, a revolutionary party composed of Punjabi Indians from the United States and Canada who fought for Indian independence from the British Crown in the early 1900’s.

“You had all of these media-creating tools that were telling the counter-narrative of social justice movements. Right now, social media (tools) … are basically serving to do the same thing,” she added, “and you don’t need mainstream media to validate the words that you’re putting out.”

Thomas elucidated the manner in which social activists have historically been taught in public schools as idealistic figures, despite being very polarizing during the civil rights movement, saying, “At the time that’s not really how it worked … people absolutely were not (universally loved),” he continued that due to the prevalence of social media, “We, for better or for worse, are seeing the actual process and that process isn’t always pretty.”

The discussion segued into talking about the incident in Missouri where a student photographer from the Columbia Missourian newspaper was ejected from a protest organized by the student organization, Concerned Student 1950. This was amidst racial tensions at the University of Missouri last week and the resignation of the state’s university system president and university chancellor. Ramakrishnan asked the panel about ways in which video and social media enhance scrutiny and may even complicate the intentions of a social movement.

“We do see a lot of the narratives happening in real life … and you’re following these very uncomfortable conversations … I think we have to be generous. Being an activist, telling your narrative is a journey, it is a process to grow and become who you are … no matter what movement you’re speaking of there’s always been internal strife … and there’s been a lot of work to figure out what to keep behind closed doors and what to publicize and put forward … and (now) a lot of things are being done without control.”

Fong ended his comment portion of the forum by emphasizing the need for people to be aware of current issues and utilize social media as a social justice tool saying, “… If you’re one of those people who’s not really involved in politics and you aren’t really paying attention to the issues … you aren’t personally ready for change. You aren’t even willing to fire off 140 characters for justice. But for those of us who realize the power of the hashtag and the power of using Twitter … the simple act of voicing your story … it’s a personal revolution.”

A Q-and-A session followed the discussion as well as questions taken from students that tweeted under #NewCivilRights.

Asian Pacific Student Programs, Chicano Student Programs, African Student Programs and the Middle Eastern Student Center also co-sponsored the event.