Social Media – Not Smarter, Just Louder

1 / 07 / 2016

With access easy access to information, news is increasingly becoming a personal story – and with the prevalence of non-traditional media websites and social media, we’re more often treated to activism and outrage than truth, writes Amal Awad.

Operating in an era of rising citizen journalism, internet personalities and clicktivism, it’s fair to say that traditional media, while not dead, is extremely challenged.

We’re not only operating in a 24/7 news cycle, where your information is only as fresh as your last hashtagged update; we’re changing how we communicate and receive news. Short, succinct subtitled videos stream through your social media feed, delivering bite-sized news pieces for an impatient audience.

Indeed, in many ways, it’s the audience, as the hungry mob, who selects what is newsworthy. Journalists are increasingly under pressure to report for clicks, and because news is delivered by social media, we’re increasingly being pushed to express a reaction.

Meanwhile, a significant thread to the media story is how identity politics is shaping what is being reported and when, with so-called minorities – people of colour, people with disability, women, the disenfranchised and anyone who can’t claim ‘white privilege’ – taking the mic.

Quite often, it’s reactive and angry. In general, this anger is a defining characteristic of modern engagement with world events – you don’t have to be a part of a minority to express outrage. We have immediate access to the thoughts and grievances of others; we see hardship trickle down our social media feeds and must decide how to deal with this slideshow of tragedy between check-ins and food posts. Do we share then move on? Do we change a profile picture in solidarity following an act of terrorism?

In the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen how the audience has shaped the news.

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First, the case of Brock Turner, a young American college student who was caught raping a woman. There is no question as to his guilt – he was caught, convicted and sentenced. However, his light sentence of six months, following a plea from his father, lit up the internet.

The victim of the crime issued a letter to her attacker, which went viral. The men who caught him were celebrated, though to their credit, didn’t indulge the media’s need to either vilify or celebrate and make them, too, a viral sensation. Brock Turner was decimated with hashtags like #BrockTurnerRapist.

The audience had a role here: of the many rape cases we might hear about, it was Turner’s that enraged people because he represents many things to different people: white privilege meant he was treated differently by media – i.e, we didn’t see his mugshot, we saw a clean-cut American kid in news reports; he raped a woman but his act was being explained away as an anomaly, a departure from his usual behaviour, by his father who pleaded that his son shouldn’t be punished for 20 minutes of bad behaviour. The kinds of justifications that most rapists would never be afforded were being applied to Turner, a swimmer whose career prospects are most certainly destroyed – USA Swimming has now banned him for life.

There was no escaping this case online. Turner, someone who might have once taken up a short news piece online but would not have been likely to make an Australian broadsheet, became a global story, his victim an emblem of the injustice that surrounds rape cases, where victims are often shamed.

Journalism may rarely be pure – it takes sides through its choice of angles, and its headlines speak to specific audiences. Yet with the rise of ‘viral’ content, Turner’s case was everywhere – a news reporter read a statement from the victim, which did the social media rounds. A rush of empathy for the victim followed, yet for many, it was still bait – why is it only this woman’s case we’re hearing? And what’s taken so long? The story grew legs and sprouted wings.

This is a considerable element in modern news. We never just take it – we dissect it, finding the flaws to make it personally relevant.

On the internet, everything is personal.

We’re all empowered to curate our newsfeeds, but the reality of social media and news in general is that it traffics in human suffering. Where once media reported, it now panders, appeases or provokes us. And while you might argue that much of the online outrage is preaching to the converted, it’s worth asking how the use of modern technology could be elevated from bite-sized pieces of rage to something more meaningful.

We don’t simply communicate our thoughts, we hijack events to create personal meaning, or support our own causes.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the recent tragic shootings in Orlando, Florida, where a man entered a gay nightclub and went on a shooting spree. The act left 49 dead and 53 injured.

The report was not that a lone gunman embarked on a shooting spree in a gay nightclub in Florida. Initially, the story was focused on the fact that the gunman – Omar Mateen – was Muslim. The crime was an act of terror, but not the ‘terrorist’ kind, no matter who Mateen invoked as inspiration. But as the story grew, unlike the loner status the white gunmen with mental illnesses are ascribed for mass shootings in the US, Mateen was surprisingly not deemed a terrorist.

Eventually there was discussion about his mental state, and revelations that he himself was allegedly gay and had attended Pulse, the nightclub in which he took the lives of others. His violent history against a former spouse was also brought to light. And, of course, homophobia was a central concern.

In a sea of specialty blogs, news sites and trend and hashtag-heavy social media websites, Omar Mateen was a puzzle to solve.

We remembered to honour the victims, and that homophobia is a very real and dangerous problem around the world. So we expressed solidarity, and made it about homophobia, particularly within traditional religion. In the case of Mateen, Muslims were placed under a new kind of pressure – to explain the Islamic stance on homosexuality. This became the resounding call, the usual need to apologise for a Muslim’s terrorism quickly fading.

The story evolved even further, morphing into the debate about gun control in the US, or rather, the enraging lack of it. The US sees thousands of gun-related deaths every year, and an astounding lack of political will to address it.

It’s not that any one idea is right or wrong, but we move beyond pure factual reporting the moment we step into emotion.

The problem for today’s ‘clicktivist’ isn’t a lack of feeling – it’s an abundance of it. Post-tragedy, the internet is a competitive space, with various stakeholders vying for ownership of the event.

The cases mentioned are just two that exemplify how identity politics are shaping media. In a romantic sense, the previously unrepresented are being heard. Spaces that would have once been closed, while not necessarily equitable, are now open. So we don’t get one opinion when there are many.

But with this comes its issues; the constant background noise can getS so loud, it’s hard to hear. This virtual tribalism can, sometimes, do harm, particularly when one’s valid experience is denied in light of another’s.

Just the week before the Orlando shootings, the global online community was united in its mourning of the great US boxer Muhammed Ali. He was celebrated as an example of a Muslim who has done important things in the world, and his political influence cannot be understated.

But in many ways, it felt too easy to grab hold of Ali’s heroism. Suddenly, people like Donald Trump, an outspoken proponent of discrimination against Muslims and Hispanics, was acknowledging Ali on Twitter. The disingenuous act was proof of the frivolity of the internet.

We think we’re getting smarter, but in many ways we’re just getting louder.

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