Black social media’s voice is critical in pursuing justice, experts say

The mother of Shanquella Robinson, the 25-year-old woman who was found dead in Mexico, said Black social media users are to thank for amplifying her daughter’s case.

SHARE THIS —

Salamondra Robinson said she is sure she’ll see justice for her daughter, 25-year-old Shanquella Robinson, who was found dead late last month in Mexico. But she never imagined so many strangers would rally behind her and her family. 

“It feels really good to see the help coming in,” Salamondra told NBC News. She said she doesn’t believe Robinson’s death would have gotten so much attention from authorities and media outlets if it weren’t for Black social media users highlighting the case. 

“I never thought she wouldn’t get justice because we were going to try to go all the way,” she added. “But I appreciate everything that everybody’s done, however you’ve played a part in it.”

Robinson, of Charlotte, North Carolina, was found dead at a villa in Cabo San Lucas on Oct. 29. Her death, first reported by local news outlets in North Carolina and Black-centered blog sites, was heart-wrenching to Black social media users. Robinson was vacationing with six friends at the Mexican resort, arriving on Oct. 28. She was dead less than 24 hours later with friends claiming she had alcohol poisoning, the family said.  However, a video later surfaced allegedly showing Robinson being physically attacked in a room. NBC News has not verified the video is of Robinson.

Posts about Robinson’s death went viral on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok. Now, less than a month later, her family, social media users and experts are acknowledging the power of Black social media support, saying it was crucial keeping attention on her case. 

“Social media has been around and has been used as an amplification and social justice tool for almost a decade,” said Sherri Williams, a professor of race, media and communication at American University. “Black folks know that mainstream news media has a history of completely ignoring our stories. So we’ve been using these tools to amplify our stories ourselves. And it works! We see this cycle of mainstream news media basically following the chatter on Black social media.” 

According to Queen City News, based in Charlotte, authorities initially said there was no evidence suggesting Robinson had been murdered. However, her family told news station WBTV of Charlotte that an autopsy report states that Robinson’s neck had been broken and her spinal cord cracked. NBC News has not independently verified the autopsy report. Now, the FBI in Charlotte is investigating and Mexican authorities reportedly told The Daily Beast that the death is currently being investigated as a homicide. 

People have shown their support in ways beyond social media. A GoFundMe for the family has raised more than $363,000. And on Saturday, hundreds of family, friends and supporters gathered for Robinson’s funeral

Salamondra Robinson said all this may not have happened if it weren’t for the scores of Black social media users calling for a larger investigation.

“Everybody’s helping out,” she said, adding that she’s been “sick to my stomach” about her daughter’s death. “I appreciate the ones working so hard to get justice done. We’re not done yet, but we’re going to get there.”

Shanquella Robinson.via Facebook

Social media users began posting about Robinson’s story earlier this month, with hip-hop blogger Amina Kane sharing a photo of her and tweeting, “Rest in Power Shanquella Robinson” on Nov. 9.  Her message quickly went viral on Twitter, with more than 17,000 retweets, and later on Tik Tok, with users sharing her tweet in their videos, bringing more attention to Robinson’s death. 

“I never expected it to go viral, I never do anything with the intention of going viral. I was emotionally invested in the story,” Kane, 23, said, noting that she began researching Robinson’s death after seeing a local news outlet mention the case. 

“My initial thought was, ‘It’s unfortunate that something traumatic like this has to go viral. But I’m happy this is going viral because now people are going to talk about it and things are going to happen.’ There’s power in numbers. Black social media is extremely powerful.” 

Social media users have also used the #SayHerName hashtag when amplifying Robinson’s story. The #SayHerName social movement exists to raise awareness about violence against Black women. 

This isn’t the first time Black social media users have used their platform to draw attention to injustice. Earlier this month, Black Twitter users helped a Yale professor track down a 9-year-old New Jersey girl who was confronted by police after a neighbor complained about her spraying lantern flies on sidewalks. The professor, Ijeoma Opara, wanted to support the child’s interest in science, and social media users made it possible. Last week, Opara tweeted photos from her time with the little girl, thanking her “Twitter fam.” “I connected with them & invited them to @yale for a Black girl led Science Tour! Yesterday—HISTORY was MADE,” she wrote in the tweet.

Also this month, viral video of a teacher in Texas who appeared to be white telling Black students that his race is “superior” swiftly prompted an investigation; the teacher is no longer employed at the school.  

And then, like in Robinson’s case, there have also been instances when Black social media users have used their platform to address more dire situations.  In 2017, they  questioned the death of Kenneka Jenkins, whose body was found in a hotel freezer in a Chicago suburb. She went to a party with friends at the hotel and was found the next day. Video showed Jenkins walking unsteadily through the hotel’s kitchen before disappearing around a corner. Social media users demanded more transparency from authorities in the investigation, and questioned whether Jenkins had been harmed. Authorities ultimately ruled the death accidental, noting that Jenkins was intoxicated and died of hypothermia, according to NBC New York affiliate WNBC.

It was social media users who called attention to Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old Georgia student who was found dead in 2013 in a rolled-up gym mat; and to Renisha McBride, who was fatally shot by Theodore Wafer in 2013 when she knocked on his Detroit door for help after a car accident. Several social media campaigns supporting the family’s search for answers have popped up over the years since his death. The family has repeatedly said they believe Johnson was killed. Authorities closed Johnson’s case this year without charges. State and local law enforcement officials ruled the death an accidental asphyxiation, saying Johnson died after he climbed into a rolled-up mat to retrieve his sneakers. Social media initially amplified McBride’s death and highlighted her case using the #SayHerName hashtag. Wafer, McBride’s killer, was sentenced in 2014 to a minimum of 17 years in prison. Experts have said the online activism surrounding her case helped lead to a guilty verdict.

“Shanquella Robinson’s story teaches us that Black people still recognize the power of Black digital activism,” Williams said. “But mainstream media still has a way to go in terms of, not only diversifying its news force, but also in terms of paying attention to what is happening in communities that are not white.”

As for Salamondra, she said she is happy to see social media users sharing updates about her daughter’s case, especially as the FBI hasn’t given the family much information, she said.

“People are leaking everything on Facebook and Instagram. Most of it is pretty accurate. I want them to share everything,” she said. “I love it because it’s keeping Shanquella’s memory alive. Everybody that knew Shanquella knew she was a good person and she had a great heart.”