Identity

The Go-To Instagram for NYC Protest Updates Explains How They Do It

The team behind @justiceforgeorgenyc talked about what it takes to track protests and keep their followers informed.
July 13, 2020, 12:00pm
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Bearing witness to the historic reckoning with systemic racism, and amplifying dialogue to drive change that delivers on the promise of racial equality.

For just over a month, it’s been invigorating to live in a time when it feels almost easy to head out to a protest, thanks to the sheer amount of information and live updates available online. Across the country, people have been putting their bodies on the line in the fight for Black liberation and against police violence every single day.

That ease of access doesn’t come without a whole lot of behind-the-scenes work by community organizers. There are march routes to chart, marshalls to recruit, medics and legal observers to contact, sound systems to connect, and people to protect, all of which takes a ton of planning.

But once all that’s set up, organizers need people to actually attend—which is where social media comes into play. Instagram accounts and Facebook groups have become publicity hubs for organizers looking to draw crowds, and information centers for people looking to participate in the movement. These profiles have become valuable information hubs, especially for the average person without robust activist experience; the newly activated individuals who have tons of energy and are on the lookout for somewhere helpful to direct it.

VICE spoke to the people behind the go-to Instagram account for action tracking in New York City, @justiceforgeorgenyc. Their account quickly became a go-to source for anyone trying to make direct action a regular part of their lives, facilitating meet-up, providing live updates, and prioritizing demonstrator safety. Though they declined to share personal information—like their real names, occupations, or previous organizing experience—for security reasons, the people behind JusticeforGeorgeNYC were happy to discuss the importance of centering the movement, how to do community-building work from a distance, and why real-time updates boost attendance.

VICE: What was that the intention behind creating @JusticeforGeorgeNYC?

JusticeForGeorgeNYC: The account was started to create a centralized source for protest information on Instagram. Unlike Twitter, where the search and hashtag features make it relatively simple to find information on current events or accounts and threads tracking protest information, Instagram doesn’t [provide that] unless you know which accounts to look for. The idea was just to replicate that kind of accessibility but adapt it to the Instagram platform as a first-stop, centralized location.

Tracking the protests developed organically based on a perceived desire to know the movements of protests, rallies, marches, and other actions, so that latecomers could still join.

How many people are on the JusticeforGeorgeNYC team? I think people would love to get a better understanding of what kind of a group to assemble before taking something like this on.

We’re a small team of under 10 people! That being said, there are a number of accounts similar to this where the size of the team ranges from very small to a much larger team than ours. Ultimately, it’s going to depend on the page, the location, the people behind it, and what works best for them.

How has the purpose of @JusticeforGeorgeNYC evolved as the Movement for Black Lives has progressed in NYC?

In the very beginning, like the first and second day [May 29 and 30], I believe there was only one protest that had been organized by an already established organization, @nyjusticeleague. For the first two days, I found the info myself not by contacting anyone, just by seeing what was being spread on Twitter, the idea being, let me take the accessibility of information on these protests and bring it to Instagram.

By the third day, enough people had begun to follow and started to send in the DMs what they were hearing or seeing. By the fourth and fifth day, I was no longer seeking out that info. Instead, followers were sending that info and then the organizers themselves. That’s how it’s been since.

Eventually, it became clear that the value of tracking the protests was more than just logistical. For example, as we hear often, it gives those at home who aren’t able to come out to protests a way of feeling like they’re participating remotely. It also allows different organizations to come together and march en masse, which is both safer for protesters and more impactful for the movement. And now, it enables organizers to keep up this sustained energy by making it easier to spread the word about their events.

With so much going on, how do you decide which events to feature?

We decide whether or not to amplify an event using a singular criteria: ensuring that everything we share supports the dismantlement of systemic racism and is in support of Black life. We don’t discriminate based on a protest’s size, institutional support, the background of its organizers.

Like much of the movement, JusticeForGeorgeNYC is a grassroots effort. We rely on a range of organizations/organizers/activists with whom we’ve built relationships, as well as our followers who send us information about gatherings. When possible, we try to verify the organizer of the event and tag their Instagram account. We gather all of the events sent to us in a spreadsheet and compile them into the daily rosters that we share on our Instagram each night.

What have the biggest lessons or learning moments been while running the account? I'd love any advice you have for people trying to replicate @JusticeforGeorgeNYC's success.

There has to be a large degree of humility in running an account like this; an openness to listen to people’s concerns; and a willingness to correct yourself when you make a mistake. On the one hand, you want to be liberal in your standards: As long as it’s in line with the principles of racial justice you want to include. On the other, if there are instances where you’re too liberal and post wrong information, do rely on your community to let you know and try to post a correction as soon as possible.

We are constantly learning and testing new ways to be the most helpful resource we can be to organizers and protesters alike. There are a few big lessons we’ve learned along the way:

  • It’s important to make events more accessible. A concern from the beginning for many participating in the protests was the lack of ASL-interpreters at events that would allow those events to be more accessible and inclusive to the deaf and hard of hearing community. One follower, an interpreter themselves, reached out asking if there was already an organized effort to provide those services. After realizing there wasn’t, they established their own coalition of interpreters who coordinate with us on which events interpreters are attending so that we can help get the word out to our deaf and hard of hearing followers.
  • Be on more than one platform. Instagram has been vital to us being able to spread the word about protests, but it’s also important to share information across multiple platforms. We’ve now expanded to Facebook and Twitter, as well as sending out a daily schedule via email. This ensures that we have more ways to share information in case of any technical issues—[one] weekend, [our] account was temporarily unable to post any posts or story for over 12 hours. It helped us realize the importance of using multiple channels to communicate important updates.
  • Find ways to center Black voices. The most powerful thing about this movement is seeing people with such diverse backgrounds coming together in support of Black lives. As the number of protests and actions began to grow, we noticed increasingly more comments and DMs asking which events were led by Black organizers. We started denoting Black-led events in our daily schedule, and, at the same time, we saw non-Black protest organizers reach out to Black members of their community in a more intentional effort to center Black voices.
  • Provide real-time updates on Instagram stories. This is probably the characteristic that makes our account so distinctly valuable and facilitates the kind of sustained participation [we’ve seen] in NYC. If someone can’t necessarily join at the start, with the updates [we post] they can join when they can. Providing live updates and helping people get to the protest has allowed individuals to feel as if they almost have a “friend” to encourage them to join and guide them there. We’ve kept our real time updates quick, organic, and to the point. Sometimes organizers will keep us updated, but more frequently members of our community will volunteer to DM us real-time updates every 15–20 minutes.
  • Use your personal voice. One of the most important overarching lessons we’ve learned is how much trust people place in the people behind this account, and how much responsibility comes with that. Whether it be getting people to vetted protests, making those protests accessible, or being transparent about who’s leading each protest, we have built a trust with our followers. One of the more unintentional ways we built that trust is instilling a sense of humanity in the account.

Because we start posting updates and answering DMs right when we wake up and don’t stop until we go to bed, the JusticeforGeorgeNYC posts are naturally in our own personal voices, complete with shorthand acronyms, emojis, gifs, and sometimes typos (sorry!). Over time, this has helped us forge a true and deep connection with our followers, contributing to the trust those followers place in us, even if they don’t know our names or our faces.

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.