Social media has established a space that brings people and communities together, and can be used as a powerful tool for change. Unfortunately, when the whole grid is blacked out, useful information is pushed into the metaphorical back cupboard of the internet.

In a world of working from home and social distancing, it is nearly impossible to imagine life without social media. People’s voices now are far more powerful than they used to be. Social media has changed how humans can make a meaningful impact by contributing to a collective cause.

Last week, social feeds across the globe were flooded with black images to take a virtual stand with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement after a horrific incident of police brutality in the US. These posts, mostly hashtagged #BlackoutTuesday, were people’s way of joining protests against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

After just a few hours, a mass of black squares took over Twitter and Instagram, with more than 28-million posts on Instagram alone. Following #BlackoutTuesday, online streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music committed to streaming moments of silence in all user playlists. The scale of this initiative showed how protesting has established a new format.

It all started in the US music industry when local artists decided to raise their voices online.

World Wide Worx analyst Bryan Turner says: "When we looked into the black square of #BlackoutTuesday, we found it actually had roots in calling on the music industry to support black artists. A related tag was #TheShowMustBePaused, which was organised by two black women at major music labels."

This new way of social activism led to one of the largest social media protests in recent history. The growth was so phenomenal, in fact, that it eventually became a nuisance. Not for right-wing groups, but for the protest organisers themselves.

The online protest had unintended consequences: the black images were drowning out important resources and information about the BLM cause. Tech publication Wired explained this well, saying: "The same megaphone that can amplify messages can also distort them." And this is exactly what happened.

After Floyd’s death, activists used social media to share information about physical protests, and links about projects that were driving change in their communities. These messages were drowned out last week.

It may have started as a comfortable way to show support, but #BlackoutTuesday harmed those who were trying to voice their concerns where it mattered — on the ground. One activist tweeted: "It is intentionally and unintentionally hiding critical information we are using on the ground and online."

And there was a second trend linked to this. It was just a matter of time before brands — big and small — leapt on the hashtag. "Last Tuesday, companies also posted black squares, and then consumers followed suit," Turner says.

Companies such as Google and Cisco took a step back last week from announcing products, which allowed the conversation to continue to the point where charges were brought against the four policemen involved in Floyd’s death. Japanese gaming firm Sony delayed the launch of its console.

However, while it is important for corporates to speak out, real positive change wasn’t part of many brands’ social media communication. In fact, most firms actively shied away from it.

Many posted similar black graphics, with white text detailing how the brand condemns the systematic oppression of people of colour. This was generally followed by vague statements of solidarity. But there was little mention of real-world social change.

Hundreds of brands the world over — including adidas, Nike and Amazon — are having to grapple with a dilemma: declaring support for a cause can be welcomed as a communication of brand values, but it can also backfire by appearing to be opportunistic.

US workers’ rights organisation Remake names companies such as Gap, for example, which have publicly voiced support for BLM but are yet to pay suppliers for goods produced since the pandemic halted business operations.

But there are exceptions. Messaging app company Snapchat called for a reparations commission in the US, as well as taxes that address racial injustice. It also provided funding for organisations that support justice and equality. Retailer Target provided first aid, food and other necessities in protesting communities and pledged to support employees affected by store closures as a result of the protests. General Motors said it will form an inclusion advisory board.

And there are local examples too. Gauteng-based beauty brand Swiitchbeauty refrained from posting a basic template-based response to the BLM protests. Instead, it pledged to help black-owned businesses in the form of cash grants, as well as product sponsorship for struggling artists.

While social media is a powerful tool, using it sensitively during turbulent times is essential to bringing about real change.

Swiitchbeauty founder Rabia Ghoor tells the FM: "Our initial BLM post went up on May 30 and included a poem written by one of our black team members. It was a tribute to George Floyd and Collins Khosa. After that, I kind of went back to the drawing board and said: ‘OK, now that we’ve said what we’ve said — how do I back it up and actually aid in change?’"

This led to a statement in which Swiitchbeauty made its funding commitments. The statement has been widely shared.

The power of social media cannot be debated. It has become an all-encompassing part of human life in the 21st century. What followed the tragedy of Floyd’s death should serve as a valuable lesson to users and brands about proper social media conduct, and how it should be used not only as a megaphone, but also one of the most useful tools for change we’ve ever had.