get up, stand up: how social media is changing the way we campaign

What with the access to audiences of thousands, even millions, of users, social media is in theory the perfect tool for social activists. Anyone can get involved in a campaign with the touch of a button, the only prerequisite being the possession of a smartphone. Where once protest movements were, to a degree, limited in their outreach by distance and means, protest movements can now reach almost anyone, anywhere and at any time. In the past, campaigners relied on public pickets, posting flyers, radio or television interviews – anything that would get them noticed – though they can now take to platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, where a revolution is born in the palm of a hand.

Information can be passed extremely quickly, not only making it much easier to get a movement off the ground but also to then organize and manage it. Sociologists have identified the 4 stages in the life cycle of a protest movement, those being emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization and decline. It is not difficult to make the connection between social media and the first two; thanks to the diversity and scope of such platforms, it is easier than ever to find people with similar views and political motivations with whom one can show solidarity on the streets or online.

A crucial advantage of social media platforms over more traditional campaigning methods is the wide range of different medias they carry. One of the reasons for the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s is the rise in popularity of television, allowing many in the North to see footage of the violence of the white authorities as they tried to quell demonstrations in Selma, Alabama and elsewhere. The ability to utilize film or audio carries huge advantages in that it makes a movement more personal and emotionally engaging on a deeper level than mere hearsay. Video or audio recordings act as a kind or proof, much like the civil rights footage; it becomes impossible to dismiss news stories as overblown sensationalism when there was concrete evidence that the police were using water cannons and beating peaceful protesters to the ground. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech, “We will no longer let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”

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Spider Martin’s Two Minute Warning

If this was the case in the 50s with television, then, it isn’t difficult to imagine the scope we have now in an age where almost everyone carries a smartphone with them and can capture and upload to social media any footage that might aid a protest movement. The video of a Black Lives Matter campaigner who was arrested seemingly without cause while talking police went viral across the Internet. In recent weeks, the debate about gun control laws in the US has been ongoing, the principal young campaigners using their social media accounts as ways to mobilize and engage their support network as well as counter the opposition.

It is worth taking these successes with a pinch of salt, however, as while social media can be an excellent tool, it also has the potential to be a movement’s downfall. Though a cause might initially gain a lot of support, it is so easily lost, many fading into obscurity after a movement has had its ‘moment’. The #Kony2012 campaign that took social media by storm – while in some ways greatly successful – was heavily criticized on a number of counts but notably for fueling, as Kate Dailey for the BBC puts it, “the idea, however misguided, that the social media generation has the opportunity to change the world with the click of a mouse”. It becomes very easy to sink into complacency as the abundance of hashtags and online pledges of support may make it seem like more is being done then it actually is. With social media being such a free, open space, it carries the potential to also hurt a campaign; followers can post whatever they want, potentially to the detriment of the campaign’s reputation. Online bullying and mindless Twitter rants, for example, can hardly be said to cast a movement in a favorable light. As we saw earlier with the 4 stages of a protest movement, poor use of social media could contribute to a decline, social media movements particularly prone to factionalism and internal conflict.

When a movement relies solely on likes, shares, or hashtags it is ultimately at the mercy of social media users and however long their attention span is, making it essential that it goes hand-in-hand with additional action. Matt Collins puts it well in an article for The Guardian, asserting that:

“Selfies and hashtags are unlikely to lead to social change on their own – only real governmental pressure and action can do that. But world governments listen, and act, when enough people speak. Social media is the most shareable, durable and global collection of voices the world has ever seen, one which is increasingly difficult to ignore.”

Social media being a phenomenon that is constantly evolving, it is almost impossible to make predictions with any degree of certainty as to their impact on current events, however they appear to have profoundly affected the stage on which world events play out. Social media can be an incredible tool with the power to make or break the success of any social movement with the caveat, though, that they are used intelligently.

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a culture of oversharing

What with the internet and social media, the society we are currently living in nurses a culture of oversharing. We now share everything, including our bodies, tastes, habits and histories; nothing really is taboo. Without a second thought, we let those we know, our ‘friends’ or followers, what we’re reading, eating, where we’re going and what we’re buying. At face value, this may seem harmless though there is plainly a sinister undercurrent to this seemingly innocuous habit.

More and more, we offer up our personal information to be consumed by others, the essence of the issue lying in the fact that all of our actions have become performative and about marketing, be it a service, product or most often ourselves. Though this fascination with the intimate details of people’s lives is nothing new, this “narcissism epidemic”, as The Guardian refers to it, can be traced to the rise in popularity of reality TV, from shows like The Real World to Big Brother to Keeping Up With The Kardashians which glamorized the minutae of the everyday and gave audiences a taste for ever more in-depth access to peoples’ lives.

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Effectively, sharing everything about ourselves on social media creates a ‘cult of the self’ where the ordinary and banal is made exciting with the automatic assumption that others are interested to hear about it. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I see incredibly personal posts about chronic illnesses, people opening up about their sexuality and generally filling us in on almost everything, even what they had for lunch. Though there are undeniably positive aspects to this honest direct approach to sharing, my first impression is that it indicates a fundamental insecurity, a fragility where we look outwards for affirmation and approval rather than inwards.

This apparent self-confidence actually masquerades as insecurity as we are totally dependent on others in how we see ourselves. Though we might share some good news that we are excited about, such as a pregnancy or a promotion at work, by putting it on social media we are also seeking approval from our audiences. So often is it the case that someone will share a photo of themselves that they feel confident about, only to remove it days later because it hasn’t accumulated the right amount of likes to justify its being on their profile. The phenomenon is entirely different to self-love as rather than looking inwards and being content with oneself one must look outwards to achieve a similar degree of satisfaction.

Earlier this month, Anna Freedman wrote an interesting piece for Dazed and Confused magazine about the Kylie Jenner’s decision to delay releasing news of her pregnancy until after the birth of her daughter Stormi. Freedman writes of how the young woman’s decision was “a masterclass in how to publicly strategise the private and intimate phenomenon of motherhood”. Much like the oversharing that has proved so profitable for her family, Kylie Jenner has now shown how “privacy and intimacy can be employed as skillful marketing tactics”. Even privacy is now a marketing tool, though it is important to remember that this ‘privacy’ swiftly came to an end after the birth when an 11 minute video was shared chronicling her journey through pregnancy to mollify fans who felt they had been kept in the dark. Kylie Jenner is only one of many who have shown that online performance now knows no bounds, promoting the idea that the key to success lies in the ‘share’ button.

Like all things, though, it’s not all bad; undeniably, there are some positives to this direct approach to social media. Things that were once taboo, such as medical or mental health conditions, for example, are more widely discussed. Similarly, sharing platforms can be used to find like-minded people or those that you identify with, the internet often acting as a space for marginalized groups, such as the LGBT community, to come together. We are becoming more and more confident with expressing ourselves and, in this way, wearing our hearts on our sleeve, though while this approach may be direct it is not necessarily honest. Though we might share a lot about ourselves, we share carefully and choose exactly what we want people to know or to see to align with how we want to be perceived.

In sharing intimate details of our everyday lives, it is no surprise that studies show that narcissistic traits are becoming more common and more pronounced, particularly among young people who are the principal users of these sharing platforms.

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The graph shows the Narcissistic Personality Inventory score set against the year, gleaned from an online self-test, it being clear that there has been a definite rise in narcissistic traits in recent years. This trend is clearly only likely to continue in a society that tells us that everything we do is fascinating and that everyone would like to hear about it. Zoe Williams again puts it well writing for The Guardian as she sums up the belief as “once you are important enough, nothing is mundane”. In sharing everything about our lives, we are hoping – consciously or not – to obtain some kind of approval or reassurance about ourselves that is undoubtedly a hugely unhealthy habit. TIME magazine recently ran an article that links poor mental health to social media usage, particularly of Instagram, accounting for higher levels of depression and anxiety based on poor self-esteem. When we log in to our social media accounts, we are bombarded with stories of our friends going out or on holiday, news of their successes and photos showing just how attractive they are, inevitably leading to negative comparison making about ourselves.

So much of this oversharing is borne out of the need to market oneself – so telling about the society that we live in. Nowadays, the individual is king, a philosophy that breeds the need to market oneself to succeed. According to Jean Twenge, joint author of The Narcissism Epidemic, “Economic prosperity does seem to be linked to individualism” partly explaining the boom in sales of products marketed and advertised over social media and sharing platforms, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. On sites such as these, people become a highly lucrative brand, the Kardashian sisters evidently a case in point. On Friday, he BBC reported that Kylie Jenner’s decision to tweet that she no longer uses Snapchat regularly “wiped $1.3bn (£1bn) off Snap’s stock market value”, an indication of how interlinked the personal and financial are in our heavily digitized modern society. Zoe Williams writes insightfully of how the careful curation of our social media accounts creates “a competitive culture in which asserting one’s difference, one’s specialness, is the bare minimum for being market-ready.”

Oversharing and self-branding is now an ingrained a part of our everyday, bleeding into our all aspects of our lives including our personal relationships and work life; suffice it to say, it is difficult to know how to adopt healthy digital habits that preserve and promote mental well-being for the future. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, recently announced that the site would be working to prioritize “more meaningful social interactions” over paid-content like media articles or advertising as “We[they] feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being”. TIME mentions a report on social media usage conducted by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health which “recommends the introduction of a pop-up “heavy usage” warning within these apps or website” which seems to have considerable popular support.

Regrettably, neither of these proposed solutions adequately seem to tackle the multifaceted and vastly complex underlying issue, though this is hardly surprising. Perhaps, along with policy changes and the actions of major corporations and civic bodies, it will really take the will of the people who use these platforms for any meaningful change to take place. Maybe rather than living our lives as open books, privacy might replace oversharing as the new social media trend, as unlikely as the prospect may seem. With all this uncertainty, it seems that all we can really do is think before we share and wait and see.

 

 

 

 

 

when the news got social

You would have to have been living under a rock to have missed the way that news coverage has moved to feature in social media feeds, so ubiquitous now that it barely merits a second thought. This union has proved to be both beneficial and problematic, though the advantages, efficiency but one, are difficult to overlook. Rather than having to visit a separate website, tune in to the radio, switch on the TV or pay for a newspaper, all one has to do is log in to their social media account to access the same content, often in real-time. Leaving this to one side, this marriage can have important consequences when it is one’s only way of accessing the latest news, particularly in a society that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology. In a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism it was revealed that 1 in 10 people favour their social media in briefing them on the latest news, a figure likely to be higher almost two years on from the study.

The media industry is under a lot of pressure to adapt to the rapid change that society is currently undergoing, some even referring to this transitional period as a ‘technological revolution’. Over the last decade, there has been a massive decline in the number of people consuming printed news, preferring other sources such as television and radio and, increasingly, online coverage. It is fairly recent, however, that the news has bled into social media platforms and on such a scale, this phenomenon corresponding to the rising popularity of companies such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. It seems only natural that in such a climate news organisations would be willing to adapt in order to reach the largest audience, only made possible by embracing these new networking tools. According to the Pew Research Centre, 67% of Americans admit to accessing some of their news coverage on social media, says a report published in 2017. Now, Facebook has a built in feature that mimics a news bulletin. Snapchat hosts the stories of many of the major players in media, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, along with others such as The Sun and The Daily Mail. Much of today’s political debate takes place within what has become known as the ‘Twittersphere’. Social media has become impossible to ignore, it being entirely logical to see why many well-known news organizations have jumped on the social media bandwagon, it being too important a ride to miss.

Today’s problem, though, is that of the spread of ‘fake news’, to use the famous term coined by Donald Trump. When social media becomes one’s main or only source of accessing news, they make themselves more vulnerable to be exposed to sensationalist or misleading information which feeds off the freedom and scope of these platforms. At its heart, social media is intended to be a personal, social space hence when one introduces news coverage, it too must become social and personal for its target audience, there then being a fine line between what is real ‘news’ and what is actually an ideology dressed as ‘fact’. In this sense, it’s no surprise that social media platforms are the seed-bed of extremist content or birthplace of ‘fake news’.  In 2017, a rumour that the devastating hurricane Irma would be a category 6 storm – a level that does not exist – was doing the rounds on social media after it was broadcast by the website InfoWars and shared on Facebook. The President of the United States Donald Trump even retweeted one of the right-wing Britain First’s campaign videos about Islamic terrorism, both deemed Islamophobic and later discredited. When news becomes ideological, which it inevitably does when it leaks into social media, “fake news”, misinformation and the distortion of fact becomes unavoidable, even inevitable. The presence of reputable news organizations on social media legitimizes the less trustworthy ones that whose sole aim is to reach as many people as possible, making it even more difficult to distinguish between ‘real’and ‘fake’ news. Though this task was far from easy even before this shift, all these developments can do is further muddy the waters of fact and fiction.

Crucially, this phenomenon has made it necessary to have some way of filtering the ‘real’ news from the ‘fake’ news. In The Guardian’s James Ball’s piece on the decline of public trust in social media makes it clear just how prescient this issue really is:

Trust in social media platforms fell just four points year-on-year in the UK, and even after the relentless coverage of social media being exploited for propaganda, and the big tech backlash in the US, fell just 11 points there. Globally, media was trusted less than business and NGOs, and is equal to government – and this trust level isn’t increasing.

Many government leaders and CEOs have pledged to tackle the spread of fake news, attesting that it is one of their main priorities. This can be problematic in itself though, people voicing their concerns that freedom of the press must be protected, that a state where fake news is rife is preferable to a state policed and censored by governing bodies. In spite of this, some of these strategies are compelling and might well positively contribute to the fight against misinformation and sensationalism. During the run-up to the Italian election, the government is assigning a task force to combat fake news in the wake of the suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 US election. Following much public uproar, Mark Zuckerberg has committed to suppressing the spread of fake news on Facebook by encouraging its users to take a survey on which sources of information they perceive to be most “trustworthy” so as to give priority to “high quality news”.

Social media platforms are a great way to respond to news stories and are often used as vehicles for social or political movements, undeniably a good thing in that they are a sign of a healthy democratic society. The #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements would not have taken off in the same way if social media platforms had not been their to give them access to millions of people. Complications arise when social media is a source of news rather than a space to react to news, though this recognition may have come too late. As James Ball points out,

they [social media and news coverage] are now wedded to one another, and will sink or swim together. News won’t be saved by the public falling out of love with Facebook. It will take much more than that.

Regrettably, it seems to be too late to curb these developments, it being instead more important to get with the programme and experiment with methods of damage-control and of improving the quality of journalism today. Though the future is far from certain, there remains huge potential for the media industry, avenues that are only available thanks to these very social platforms. It seems that all we can do at present is keep scrolling.

 

View story at Medium.com