Why Twitter Couldn’t Save Troy Davis – It’s what you do once you’ve signed off and engaged the real world that is the true measure of your activism
At 11:08pm Eastern time on September 21, 2011, death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis was executed in Savannah, Georgia, for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail, a crime he was convicted of more than 20 years ago. The battle to prevent Davis’ execution, based in large part on several of the original witnesses in the case recanting their testimonies, began long before the emergence of social media as a dominant influence in our society. Advocates ranging from Amnesty International to President Jimmy Carter, Pope Benedict XVI and former FBI Director and Judge William S. Sessions had taken up Davis’ cause, helping to carry the fight through state and federal appeals and three stays of execution, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The most recent—and final—battle to get a fourth stay of execution, and more importantly a new trial, enlisted social media, and specifically Twitter, in order to spur activism and awareness of Davis’ plight. The battle reached a fever pitch in the days and hours before the scheduled execution, thanks at least in part to celebrities with large and responsive Twitter followings, including Russell Simmons and Kim Kardashian, calling for a new trial for Davis. In addition to expressing disgust and outrage about the Davis case, Twitter users urged their followers to sign petitions and flood the offices of Georgia Judge Penny Freezeman, the U.S. District Attorney and others with phone calls and e-mails to get a stay of execution for Davis. As a result, Who Is Troy Davis was a worldwide trending topic on Twitter on the days leading to his execution (despite many Twitter users, including Simmons, questioning whether the social media site had deliberately blocked the #TroyDavis hashtag to keep it from trending).
Millions of Twitter users, including many of my followers, honestly believed that if they just tweeted about Troy Davis enough, and could get their followers, and their followers followers, to do so as well, they could get him a new trial at least, and maybe even prevent his execution altogether. Many are heart-broken, disillusioned and genuinely shocked that this turned out not to be the case.
I cared about Troy Davis—not just him, but the millions of others like him behind bars, including the more than 3,000 on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. I didn’t want Davis executed. In fact, I am unconditionally against the death penalty in general, regardless of guilt or innocence (in Davis’ case, I’m not convinced either way), because there is no way to eliminate the flaws in our justice system that inevitably lead to wrongful executions. But I never believed that tweeting about Troy Davis would save his life. Moreover, had his life been spared, it would have had far more to do with the respected and influential people and organizations who have advocated on his behalf over the past two decades of his legal battle than with how many tweets were retweeted over the past couple of months.
(To be perfectly blunt, as a Black man, I’d be terrified of a justice system that could be swayed by trending topics on Twitter. That’s the kind of passionate, popular-opinion mongering that drove the Salem witch hunts or incited mobs of people to think that a good lynching was a perfect way to bring the community together against a common enemy. Who needs a trial when we all know the truth about what happened and what should be done about it? Sorry, but I don’t want Twitter to have the power to override our system of trial by jury.)
Now, it’s true that Twitter and other social media (a quick search of Facebook delivered more than half dozen “Save Troy Davis” pages, groups and communities) has played a large role in making people aware of the Troy Davis case all over the world. But social media sentiment, no matter how passionate or how high it trends on Twitter, couldn’t have saved Davis any more than it could convict Casey Anthony—another high profile legal case where people seemed genuinely shocked they couldn’t get the outcome they wanted via tweets and status updates. (Not coincidentally, in the weeks leading up to Davis’ execution the #CaseyAnthony hashtag reemerged among the trending topics on Twitter, as her escape from conviction for the murder of her young daughter Caylee was often cited as an example of a racist double-standard in the justice system.)
Social-media activism can be a powerful force for good. But it’s a mistake, and even dangerous, to confuse social media awareness with being truly informed. While social media can make you more aware, it has equal power to inform and misinform. (Yes, just like so-called traditional media. Exhibit A: Fox News.) Social media is far better at communicating what we believe, how we feel, what we’ve heard, than it is at educating and separating facts from supposition from fiction. Media, whether social or traditional, can make people more aware. But awareness is not enough—we must sift through the tweets, status updates and click on the links they deliver, and then apply some critical thinking, to become truly informed. It’s what people do after they become aware, the efforts they make to educate themselves, the actions they take in support of a cause, that makes the difference. In the case of Troy Davis, too few people took action, and the action they did take, including the protest outside of the Georgia State House attended and promoted heavily on Twitter by Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of the music group OutKast, had virtually no chance of influencing the justice system that’s held Davis’ life in the balance for the past two decades.
I heard a lot of people on Twitter who believed their tweeting about the Davis case constituted activism on the level of the actions, risks and sacrifices (including their lives) made by young Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. A few people actually compared their persistent and passionate tweeting about Troy Davis to lunch counter sit-ins by students in Greensboro, North Carolina and other parts of the South in the 1960s. My response to that line of thinking: don’t be ridiculous. Unless riot cops were waiting outside to bust your head wide open to stop your Troy Davis tweets, just stop it.
Too many people—including many celebrities—who rail against the justice system when there are high-profile cases like those of Troy Davis and Casey Anthony in the news, believe that it’s not worth their time, and even beneath them, to serve jury duty when called. (Reminds me of all the celebrities pushing get-out-the-vote campaigns a few years ago who were embarrassed when it was revealed that they themselves had never voted, and in many cases, had never even registered to do so.) If you really care about the justice system and how it operates, you wouldn’t skip jury duty, nor would you need tweets from Kardashian (who naively tweeted the notion that Davis’ life could be spared if he was only allowed to take a polygraph test) or any other celebrity to take action. (Note: Just because a person has 9.9 million followers on Twitter doesn’t mean that person knows what they’re tweeting about.)
Just because you have millions of followers doesn’t mean you know what you’re tweeting about. (Image: Getty)
What will you do now that Davis is gone? What about the other 3,000 plus people slated for execution? Will you write a check or volunteer for organizations such as Amnesty International and The Innocence Project? Will you make a candidate’s position on death penalty reform a key condition of whether or not they will get your vote or your campaign contribution? Will you take the time to educate yourself about how the American criminal justice system works—and doesn’t work? Will you engage our youth and, as film producer Will Packer tweeted yesterday, urge them “to never do anything to put themselves at the mercy of the justice system”? Will you do something besides retweet or repost?
Social media activism does not take place while you are on Twitter or Facebook. It’s about more than turning a cause into a trending topic. It’s what you do with your time, money, energy and relationships once you’ve signed off, in the real world, that is the true measure of your activism. Anything less is just smartphone activism, an insult to those, both past and present, who really risked and sacrificed for the causes they believe in. Social media can’t save people. Only active, committed, informed and engaged people can do that.