Meme-ifying a Movement: The Social Media Response to Breonna Taylor’s Death and the Pitfalls of Social Media Activism

By Sophie Hochman


The revolution may not be televised, but sometimes it is tempting to believe that it could erupt on Twitter. It increasingly appears that social media is becoming a legitimate, mainstream alternative, or at least a formidable complementary component, to protest. This phenomenon was more apparent than ever in the resurgence of national Black Lives Matter protests, and was surely exacerbated by the pandemic, given the large numbers of people staying at home due to shelter-in-place orders and remote work culture (although statistics on the industries of work which are more likely to stay home indicate that the chance to sit on one’s phone all day is not distributed equally (Bureau of Labor 2020)). Feminist historian Evelyn Hammonds writes that “social movements that use social media are hard to assess,” but contends that “What COVID-19 did was force so many people who were on lockdown to…engage with social media to a greater extent than ever before and therefore engage with issues of police violence in new ways” (Hammonds 2020). Already, these newer digital avenues for protest navigate a gray area, especially given their COVID-based expansion. The potential for a worldwide audience, and the omnipresent sensation that anything could go viral, make social media activism especially appealing, especially in conditions where digital interaction necessarily makes up most social communication. In many respects, however, the particular social media response to the murder of Breonna Taylor reveals the salient shortcomings of social media as a form of ‘protest,’ and thus exposes the real costs of our gradual transition to purely digital communication as a means for change. 

  Among the most pressing elements of the social media response to the death of Breonna Taylor is its revelation of a national tendency to not take seriously the deaths of Black women, at the hands of the police or otherwise. This topic has been covered thoughtfully and fairly extensively in popular journalism (Young 2020, Dionne 2020). Instead, I want to focus on the social media response to the death of Breonna Taylor in two dimensions. The first is on a more interpersonal, social level, using Judith Butler’s “Mourning, Violence, Politics” and Joan Scott’s “The Evidence of Experience” to navigate the ways in which the social media trends pertaining to Taylor’s death undermined momentum calling for broad systemic change. The second is on a larger-scale, more economic level, considering the relationship between the social media discourse on Taylor and the proliferation of surveillance capitalism as a constant expansion of inequality – a story of what it means for a Black woman faced with horrible injustice to become a commodity in the Marxian sense, in that literal capital was produced from the proliferation of her story and her name across social media. I argue ultimately that the example of Taylor’s Black body ultimately generating capital via social media displays the clear limits to social media activism as a real force for systemic change. 

This essay will begin with a broad overview of the types of trends proliferating on Instagram, Twitter, and Tiktok in response to Taylor’s death. Then, I will read these trends through the filter of the Butler and Scott texts. Then, I will consider the social media response to Breonna Taylor in terms of surveillance capitalism, arguing that its costs outweigh the benefits of social media as an avenue for protest. In my conclusion, I will suggest a turn to the tradition of Black love politics as a radical alternative to the pitfalls of social media activism.

  1. Social Media Overview

First, I want to provide a brief overview of the social media pertaining to Taylor’s death.  This summary is by no means comprehensive, but I hope that a sample of the trends I noticed on my own Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok feeds can give readers a sense of the kinds of rhetorical and aesthetic patterns provoked by Taylor’s death. 

Instagram: Portraits and Selfies

I divide the Instagram activity around Breonna Taylor into two categories. The first are the colorful artistic portraits of Taylor’s face which circulated widely especially around what would have been her 27th birthday in June.

However, it was not long before a sub-trend emerged: using Breonna’s name, and calling for her arrest, as a way to caption a photo of oneself. In a time period where Instagram, or at least my own Instagram feed of Middlebury students and San Franciscans, was thoroughly filled with posts related to #BlackLivesMatter, the turn away from blatant self-presentation was clearly unusual. In my own view, it became a bit of a taboo to post something that was not about Black Lives Matter, and especially to draw attention to oneself when the national stakes felt so high. So users who sought to promote their self-image while still at least paying lip service to the movement of the moment found a compromise: the Breonna Taylor instagram caption.

The examples above are but a small sample – these posts generally received their due backlash (Castillo 2020), and the Reinhart post was taken down, as were the similar photos posted by acquaintances of mine. While I do not have the ability to tally the total number of these types of Instagram posts, their mere existence is noteworthy in trying to figure out what exactly is going on on social media, and why. 

Twitter: Breonna and The Misdirect

Meanwhile, Twitter had its own trends. Broadly, the cycle of content on Twitter often falls in short-lived phases of popular joke formats, on which users put their own individual spins. While Twitter was also a hub for some legitimate and useful discourse around Breonna (both in terms of her story and within the broader discussion of how to best approach police violence against Black people), the site also ran its natural course, as users soon latched onto a joke format based on calls to arrest the cops who killed her. The trend took the format of a misdirect, setting up some sort of hook to mislead the readers, and then calling to “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” instead.

On this category of Twitter memes, Cate Young, who created a digital action campaign for Breonna Taylor’s birthday, writes that “For many, the proliferation of these memes feels like yet another way in which Black women are erased. Even in death, Taylor has not been allowed to stay at the center of her own story” (Young 2020). 

TikTok: the Best of Both Worlds

On Tiktok, users blended the self-representation of Instagram with  the bait-and-switch format of Twitter. Instead of focusing on Breonna Taylor as a TikTok topic in general, I will zoom in on one specific trend. Often, TikTok trends are based on certain sounds that become viral, which each individual creator uses to create their own particular video. Thus, I am focusing on a sound which went viral in the summer relating to Breonna Taylor, which was used for approximately 108.1k videos. The sound begins with a voice singing the words “I need you to…” in a drawn out, suspenseful manner, as the video’s creator sets up some sort of false hook. Examples of this false lead include a quasi-famous TikTok celebrity Amelie Zilber, writing “here’s the reason I broke up with Nick Austin [another quasi-famous TikTok celebrity],” a user named @juztjosh who looks at the camera and claims that he is about to reveal his sexuality, and a Muslim woman under the username @iconicpinkk in her hijab saying “finally doing a hair reveal.” Then, a beat drops and a Black male voice raps, “arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor,” to which the video’s creator drops the false premise, lip syncs along, and puts the text “arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor” onscreen. 

The trend is premised on the idea that many users are more concerned with gossip, or knowing others’ information, than they are with “what really matters” – despite these videos usually having no other content or resources other than the call to arrest the cops. Like Instagram, one could make the argument for using one’s own capital (based in attractiveness or celebrity or virality) to, as the slogan goes, Say Her Name. However, the concept of saying a name has limits – as Aja Romano writes in an op ed for Vox Media, “Is saying her name really enough to create real change? What happens when a name becomes the only thing people are saying?” (Romano 2020). The rest of this paper will consider these questions, in the context of the aforementioned social media trends. 

  1. On Breonna Taylor, Public Grief, and the Evidence of Experience 

In “Mourning, Violence, Politics,” Judith Butler asks, in light of global violence, “who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives?…What makes for a grievable life?” (Butler 2003:10) This prescient question has uncanny resonance in 2020, where, nearly 300,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States alone (The New York Times 2020), and at the same time, there has been (yet again) a national reckoning with the meaning of Blackness in America. The very phrase Black Lives Matter addresses what it means for certain lives to “count” – it is not itself a cry for specific protections or policies, but a statement on the pure grievability of Black life. The movement that entails then questions not just what makes for a grievable life, but what protections and changes are necessary to ensure their “counting” as human. Butler considers the obituary as “discourse by which a life becomes, or fails to become, a publicly grievable life, an icon for national self-recognition, [and] the means by which a life becomes noteworthy” (Butler 2003:23). This analysis of the traditional newspaper obituary has prompted me to probe what it would mean to take the social media tribute as a modern-day obituary. I argue that the social media trends I have summarized above, while effectively publicizing death, erode the space for mutuality through loss, elucidating how some bodies have more social vulnerability than others and precluding the political potential of true grief. 

Butler writes that “The body has its invariably public dimension,” constituted as a “social phenomenon in the public sphere” (Butler 2003:15). On a very literal level, the portraits and photos of Breonna Taylor which circulated on the internet were a public spectacle, blurring the lines of Taylor’s own embodiment as her image went viral. However, despite the importance of considering Taylor’s case in a larger pattern of the exploitation of Black bodies, here I am more interested in how the social media response to her death actually trended away from her body, and towards either written text of memes, or the bodies of the individual users posting about her death. Butler writes that loss makes a “tenuous ‘we’ of us all” (Butler 2003:10), and, therefore, that mourning is the process of losing some of the ties by which we are constituted, losing a sense of selfhood (Butler 2003:12). This sentiment is hardly traceable in the thousands of individual ‘takes’ on the Taylor social media trends, whether in posting a selfie or making a meme; rather, quite the opposite is true. The recognition of relationality that potentially exists in grief is eluded by the individual, self-based (and not selfhood-questioning) nature of social media – wherein a personal account becomes a curated brand. While the social media obituary serves the function of a notice of death, I am not convinced that we can read in these trends any real amount of grief. If, as Butler argues, the kind of public grieving made available constitute the norms of what makes someone ‘human,’ and the public response to Taylor’s death includes a preoccupation with one’s own embodied self which separates it from grief, then in many ways, the trends based on Taylor’s death contribute to the construction of her as lacking humanity, undermining the titular mission of the Black Lives Matter movement.

There is also much to analyze about the relationship between the social media response to Breonna Taylor’s death and feminist historian Joan Scott’s “The Evidence of Experience.” Scott warns against “[taking] as self-evident the identities whose experience is being documented” (Scott 1991:777) because in doing so, “the evidence of experience…becomes evidence for the fact of difference, rather than a way of exploring how difference is established” (Scott 1991:778). Under this theory, viralizing Taylor’s name, occasionally her portrait, and the slogan “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” naturalizes the social conditions which made her story stand out, rather than uncovering their roots and nuances. The proliferation of the slogan “arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” as the commonality across these social media trends exposes the “existence of repressive mechanisms” but, in the most literal sense, does not give us the tools to conceptualize alternatives. When the ‘experience’ of one Black woman’s story circles so widely as evidence of racism, but that experience boiled down to a mere calling for her killers’ arrest, then the message has, at most, the potential to perpetuate the criminal justice system which is culpable in the first place. The emphasis on saying Breonna Taylor’s exemplifies the metaphors of visibility which Scott critiques for their necessary reproduction of, rather than contestation of, given ideological systems (Scott 1991:778). Again, I bring up Vox writer Aja Romano, who asks: “What happens when a name becomes the only thing people are saying?” (Romano 2020). The social media response to Breonna Taylor’s death reveals the ways in which the landscape of social media, in its demand for catchy attention grabbers, is profoundly set up to promote, rather than critique, the idea of evidence as experience – and by extension, sweep context under the rug in favor of reductionism, which serves to perpetuate, rather than dismantle, existing systems. 

  1. Surveillance Capitalism and the Self-Defeat of Social Media Activism

Now, I turn to (what I deem) a more tangible way to understand the real costs of social media ‘activism,’ especially as it pertains to issues related to state-inflicted violence upon Black women like Breonna Taylor. The relationship between the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement with the COVID-19 pandemic has many intersections (and even shared bases), the hub of social media-based ‘protest’ being a salient example. In fact, between shelter-in-place orders and remote work culture (for those lucky enough to be able to work remotely), much of 2020 can be considered an experiment in translating as much of real life to the digital sphere as possible. New York Times reporter Nellie Bowles describes the “screen-time surrender” among her social circles, wherein the sanctity of regulating time spent on technology for one’s own well-being has been thrown out the window in pursuit of improved well-being through the online world instead (Bowles 2020). This transfer of real life experiences including protest, and specifically the national response to the death of Breonna Taylor, as maximally to the online sphere as possible has been facilitated largely by COVID-19, but it has long-brewing, important implications for the future of capitalism – specifically, surveillance capitalism. 

Author Shoshana Zubhoff writes that surveillance capitalism “repeats capitalism’s ‘original sin’ of primitive accumulation,” except for that “Instead of claiming work…for the market dynamic as industrial capitalism once did, surveillance capitalism audaciously lays claim to private experience for translation into fungible commodities that are rapidly swept up into the exhilarating life of the market” (Zuboff 2019:11). In other words, within surveillance capitalism, the capitalists – both inside and outside of tech companies themselves – peddle digital technology as a means of acquiring their real capital: human data, gathered from tracking individuals’ behavior through their online activity. This new form of capital is the basis for a “burgeoning surveillance-based economic order that now extends across a vast and varied range of products and services” (Zuboff 2019:11). This economic order was surely helped along greatly by the pandemic, as surveillance capitalism relies on the “increasingly ubiquitous institutionalization of digital instruments to feed on, and even shape, every aspect of every human’s experience” (Zuboff 2019:12). An economic order which was already possible in the pre-COVID tech landscape has been streamlined by the fact that for many people, many experiences (shopping for groceries, catching up with friends, learning a new language, getting in shape, and of course, engagement with social justice issues) transitioned into existing first and foremost online, and thus, were made even more easily translatable into behavioral data capital. 

What this means, in layman’s terms, is that every click on every piece of online content generated with the name “Breonna Taylor” in it stimulates the surveillance economy, and generates capital for the owners of its metaphorical means of production. In an op-ed, Bitch Media editor Evette Dionne writes: 

“In the absence of the justice that will always elude Taylor and her family, let us hope for something both complex and simple: that we remember her without capitalizing on her likeness, that fighting in her name doesn’t line anyone’s pockets outside of the family she left behind, and that she may be one of the last names we have to utter in the fight to end police violence” (Dionne 2020). 

The fight in her name, via social media, inherently lines the pockets of the surveillance capitalist bourgeoisie. This unintended consequence of the social media response to Taylor’s death (and social media protest as a whole) then exacerbates the brutality of late-stage capitalism in the U.S. As ironic as it is tragic, the sharing of Taylor’s name across platforms, no matter the trend, ultimately meant that her story, her body, and her selfhood became a mechanism by which the “system” maintained its ascendency. Especially in light of Black feminist theory on the interconnectedness of power relations (Collins 1990, hooks 1981 as but two of countless examples), there is a fundamental connection between the system of police brutality which caused Taylor’s untimely death, and the surveillance capitalists who profit from its circulation. 


I don’t blame anyone for using social media. My critiques of the social media response to Taylor’s death, and especially its relationship to surveillance capitalism, are not meant to blame any individual users for engaging with content online, or even any individual producing content relating to Breonna Taylor that feminists would criticize (although I do think that encouraging people to do just a tad more critical thinking is not a bad idea). The idea is to direct our criticisms  at the systems that produce these dynamics, rather than the dynamics themselves – to unpack the “evidence” of specific posts to unveil the forces which constructed them. To paraphrase Audre Lorde’s timelessly relevant address, the master’s tools, or the mechanisms by which those at the top monitor the behavioral patterns of the masses for capital gain, will never dismantle the master’s house – the structure of white supremacy and state-inflicted violence, of which Breonna’s death was a poignant example. Lorde writes that “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (Lorde 1984); we can generate useful information and engage wider audiences through social media, but so long as it operates to exacerbate wealth inequality and brutal late-stage capitalism in the U.S., it will never be the means by which true revolution, through police or prison abolition and other destructions of white supremacy, can take place. 

I think we may find a useful alternative in looking back to the Black feminist political tradition of love politics. Feminsit scholar Jennifer Nash writes that Black feminist love-politics “reshapes the public sphere by offering a distinctive conception of remedy” which exists outside of the state, in contrast to intersectional projects, which often do so in their “sometimes ambivalent call for doctrinal remedy” (Nash 2011:15). This would mean a turn away from social media calls to arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor, and a recognition that these calls legitimize the carceral state rather than procure remedy in ways which work towards its collapse. We may take a lesson from Black feminist love-poltics in asking how affective communities “can themselves be a site of redress” (Nash 2011:15). In some ways, Nash’s description of a “collectivity marked by ‘communal affect,’ a utopian, visionary, future-oriented community held together by affiliation and “public feeling” rather than an imagined—or enforced—sameness” (Nash 2011:17) does not read so differently from the dizzying variety of people across the world reacting to Taylor’s death on social media. However, the dynamics of social media take this potential for collectivity based in public feeling, and usurp it for means which are antithetical to justice. While the revolution will not be on Instagram, an adoption of Black feminist love-politics as a means of building collectivity may help show us where exactly it will be – so that we may honor Breonna Taylor’s memory not with a Tweet but by collapsing the systems which caused her tragic death in the first place.

Works Cited

Judith Butler, 2003. “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4(1), 9-37

Jessica Castillo, 2020. “Lili Reinhart Apologizes for Breonna Taylor Instagram Post,” Teen Vogue. 

Evette Dionne, 2020. “Breonna Taylor, the FIgurehead, the Martyr, the Product.” Bitch Media,

Evelyn M. Hammonds, 2020. “A Moment or a Movement? The Pandemic, Political Upheaval, and Racial Reckoning.” Signs, “Feminists Theorize COVID-19.”  

Patricia Hill Collins, 1990. “Black Feminist Thought and the Matrix of Domination,” Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Boston. 

bell hooks, 1981. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, South End Press. 

Audre Lorde, 1984. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” Sister 

Outsider: Essays Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.

Jennifer C. Nash, 2011. “Practicing Love: Black Feminism, Love-Politics, and 

Post-Intersectionality.” Meridians, 11(2), 1-24. 

Aja Romano, 2020. “‘Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor’: The power and the peril of a catchphrase.” Vox

Joan W. Scott, 1991 “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17(4), 773-797

United States Bureau of Labor, 2020. “Effects of the coronavirus pandemic (CPS),” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,

Cate Young, 2020. “Memes Are Robbing Breonna Taylor of Her Story,” Jezebel.  

Shoshana Zuboff, 2019. “Surveillance Capitalism and the Challenge of Collective Action,” New Labor Forum 28(1), 10-29.