How social media impacts masses - GulfToday

How social media impacts masses

Social Media Giants

The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

Zeena Feldman, The Independent

As a digital culture and media scholar, I am routinely drawn to the minor genre of people behaving badly online. This is usually innocuous stuff: out-of-touch celebrity Instagram posts; Reddit tales of choosing beggars. It is easy to reduce social media to this sort of low stakes fodder. Yet the video of Jacob Blake s shooting and that of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police officers — and the mass protests they both inspired have made it clear we must resist this urge. Social media matters.

In the days since Blake’s shooting and weeks since Floyd s death (and Breonna Taylor’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s), social platforms emerged as public repositories of evidence documenting the cruel materiality of being black in an anti-black world. These platforms have made race-based inequality and violence visible on a grand scale, and have helped everyday racism and racist policing reach mass (read: white) consciousness.

This moment in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is seeing social media deliver on its citizen journalism potential. As stockpiles of racist evidence amass on Twitter, Instagram and other user-generated platforms, social media gives us the opportunity to confront and reckon with the worst of humanity, to organise broad coalitions demanding change and to launch conversations about representation, nomenclature, and systemic (in)justice. This ought to matter to any sentient human, including white women like me.

I’ve never been a booster of social media. (It’s a lot easier to focus on these platforms’ shortcomings.) But BLM — and especially the movement’s brilliant commandeering of social media — has filled me with the sort of techno-optimism I’d long written off. This is optimism about digital culture’s capacity to speak truth to power and to ensure that disenfranchised voices are finally heard.

But we must also remember that today’s social media platforms are for-profit corporations. That means they, and the content they host, are susceptible to capitalist appropriation. This is one way of understanding the fallout from this summer’s #BlackOutTuesday campaign. What started as an effort to draw attention to the music industry’s exploitation of black people quickly became a hashtag and Instagram campaign taken up by consumer brands, from fast food chains to fast fashion retailers, to signal their support for the BLM movement.

Don’t get me wrong, supporting BLM is a good thing but how meaningful is posting a black square on Instagram? Brands would do well to recall that people aren’t idiots; we see gestures of “woke-washing” precisely for what they are.

Unsurprisingly, #BlackOutTuesday was swiftly condemned. Model and transgender rights activist Munroe Bergdorf responded to L’Oréal’s Instagram black square by calling out the company’s hypocrisy. L’Oréal fired Munroe in 2017, after she spoke out against a white supremacist murderer on Facebook.

From the music industry, Lizzo and Lil Nas X pointed to the campaign’s lack of action orientation, with Lil Nas X asking, “What if we posted donation and petitions links on Instagram all at the same time instead of pitch black images?” Others, like sociologist Anthony James Williams, explained that the hashtag was actually impeding the work of BLM: “It is intentionally and unintentionally hiding critical information we are using on the ground and online.”#BlackOutTuesday and #BLM have given us a deluge of performative allyship, with some actions more compelling than others. Recall the pure cringe of Carine Roitfeld’s photo of her arms around Black model Anok Yai, which Roitfeld captioned “Anok is not a black woman, she is my friend, I missing!”

For all its deficits, however, #BlackOutTuesday nonetheless focused popular attention on anti-Blackness and exposed the ways anti-racism can be cynically co-opted by market forces. But where I think social media have most powerfully supported the aims of BLM is by giving voice to and documenting the experiences of those most likely to be left out of capitalism’s gains.

Inequalities which attend to the black experience in the UK and US are shameful. What social media platforms do, through their ubiquity, relative ease of use and accessibility, is draw attention to the shame and make it visible, audible and irrefutable. One of the post-George Floyd digital projects doing this is a public Google spreadsheet of police brutality, compiled by lawyer T Greg Doucette and mathematician Jason Miller. This crowd-sourced project (and others like it) catalogues videos of police violence and provides the “kind of documentation [that] serves as a counter-narrative to repeated denials of responsibility from the police” and from a wider public. Yet some have called for the media to stop showing videos of anti-black police violence. Political scientist Melanye Price described such footage as “essentially snuff films with African-American protagonists” and suggested “citizens need to think more critically about whether to share them on social media”. Yes, these images are triggering. That’s exactly why they must be seen. Hiding the deaths of black people risks sensationalising it. But as theorist and activist Rianna Walcott reminded me, we also must not lose sight of “the adverse impact on black people seeing (these videos) constantly, and of death becoming the focal part of black life”.

One way to fight anti-blackness is by holding racists individuals and institutions to account. But this requires evidence. Luckily, social media are swimming in the stuff. Speaking truth to power is always a struggle, but today, the struggle is aided by a technological infrastructure capable of giving voice to the marginalised in ways traditional media simply can’t. Or won’t.

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