On 30 May, five days after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and in the midst of ensuing protests, the official @Netflix account tweeted: ‘To be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter. We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.’ On the same day, @TargetNews posted: ‘We are a community in pain. That pain is not unique to the Twin Cities – it extends across America. And, as a team, we’ve vowed to face pain with purpose,’ followed by a statement from Target CEO Brian Cornell. Twitter changed its official account’s bio to #BlackLivesMatter and shared information about mental-health services for demonstrators.
Without real action behind these words, such corporate responses are mere platitudes, no better than the insipid calls for ‘togetherness’ many other firms have shared since the COVID-19 pandemic began. For example, @Coca-Cola’s Twitter bio is: ‘Wherever we see hope, we’re sharing it. #ShareHope’ – although the soda company’s idea of hope seems to be tweeting about ‘everybody checking on their friends and fam’ or how ‘sometimes, a virtual cheers is the best kind of cheers’. Coca-Cola’s vision has mostly been limited to the kind of vapid, bubbly messaging that has been ubiquitous since the onset of COVID-19. Elsewhere on Twitter, @BurgerKing misguidedly participated in the ‘my plans / 2020’ meme with a mouldy, disgusting burger. (Their other attempt at the meme, with neat French fry and onion ring packages on the left and a tray piled messily with the fried foods on the right, shows a more nuanced understanding of what the internet likes.)
Such levity is misplaced in a digital space where real talk can generate real crises, and users can share information about their struggles in the streets. For instance, a single tweet on the official UK Civil Service account, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s press conference defending his aide, Dominic Cummings, for breaking the country’s lockdown rules, read: ‘Arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?’ The rogue tweet was deleted, but not before it made headline news. In the US, Trump is going after Twitter (and every other social platform with it) by threatening to issue an executive order that cancels Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act: the law that gives tech companies immunity from liability for user-generated content. Trump’s attack on the platform he uses incessantly was motivated by Twitter’s newly introduced fact-checking links, a small blue text tacked below tweets that gives users verifiable information concerning the subject of a given post. Trump is vindictively going after social media exactly at a time when, confronted with confusing official accounts, many people are getting their news about COVID-19 or the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in response to Floyd’s murder from platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.
In the midst of all this, countless corporations are opting to rework their media strategies and highlight their sense of citizenship. On Twitter, @Ford shows images of its pick-up trucks full of Ford-branded cardboard boxes containing PPE that the company has donated to US military bases. It has also posted a series of patriotic videos – made by advertising mega-agency Wieden + Kennedy – featuring taglines like ‘we build for the people who build America’ and telling close-ups of the Ford logo on fire trucks and ambulances. A similarly cheap patriotism is delivered by Italian Coca-Cola, which posted a video on Instagram that compiles different scenes of balcony life under the lockdown, set to the soundtrack of singer Cesare Cremonini’s 2006 version of Lunapop’s Un Giorno Migliore (A Better Day, 1999).
This sentimentalism is repeated across numerous brand accounts. Amazon is serving nostalgia by sharing user searches for music and books from other decades (‘Alexa, play John Lennon’s Imagine’), as well as self-promotion about how the company (which posted US$75 billion in first-quarter sales for 2020) is caring for its employees, many of whom staged walk-outs in March and April to protest unsafe working conditions. For weeks, Chipotle’s Twitter bio read ‘we miss you too’. Burger King donated 250,000 burgers to nurses, which it advertised on Instagram with a photo of a hipster dude lying on a sofa, with a wraparound text reading: ‘Be a patriot. Stay at home.’
But users aren’t buying this sugary sweetness. When Amazon appropriated the rainbow as a symbol of hope and solidarity with doctors and nurses, pickers and packers, suppliers and drivers, user @ellepoulsen replied: ‘If you want to really say “thank you” pay your proper taxes in the countries in which you operate, like the hard working doctors and nurses working on the front line.’ On 26 May, Target posted a poem on Twitter about how it was missing its customers: ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, hope you have a good day and we miss you, too.’ However, when protestors broke into a Minneapolis Target two days later, @AnthonyMSeoane commented: ‘If @Target wants to be petty & prosecute the people who might have looted their store in Minneapolis, THEN I WILL NEVER SHOP AT TARGET AGAIN. The people who might have looted have every right to be angry. Besides @Target has insurance that will reimburse them for their losses.’
These comment-section revolts are reminders that users don’t want brands to feign solidarity while raking in huge profits yet paying their employees minimum wage, or sell their customers hopeful platitudes in order to capitalize on their emotional state. Acts of community aid and chants of ‘no justice, no peace’ are renunciations of trust in a broken social contract. To cover their failure, mega-corporations are telling us how great we all are and how much they miss us. While we shouldn’t forget that social media platforms themselves are corporations vying for users and attention, they are also an important space for information and images of protest. Don’t black out your Instagram: keep tweeting about your experiences and what you witness, while also rejecting the bland sentimentalism. It is just a distraction from what is really missing and what we must demand: systemic change.
Main Image: People leave the Target on Lake Street with goods from the store in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2020. Courtesy: © Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Lorie Shaull