Social Media and the Future of Social Justice Journalism

(KJB 101 Assessment 3)

Previously, traditional journalism was the only source of information accessible for a large audience. As the usage of social media increased, more sources have surfaced; anyone can provide information to anyone. User-generated content in social media can be said to provide a different perspective to conventional mass media outlets. Social media is therefore a significant part of the future of social justice journalism.

Recently, there has been a large shift in coverage of policing, criminal justice issues and race and this has largely been fuelled by social media. The coverage and subsequent discussion has led to more awareness about the issues affecting minority groups. While it appears that social media is an increasingly popular platform for social justice journalism, it also seems to stifle discussion on serious issues. This suggests that the as the use of social media increases, the population is spiralling into silence. It appears that social media creates an atmosphere where people do not want to publicise their minority views for fear of tension within their social circle. Additionally, some say that social media does little to increase access to information. An informed citizenry relies on the public’s awareness of important issues and on their willingness to discuss these issues with people around them.[i] With more users of social media than ever before,[ii] it is necessary to consider its role in future of social justice journalism.

Violence against Black people in the United States has been a pervasive issue throughout history. However, a recent, widespread public use of mobile phone cameras and social media sharing has brought the issue directly into the spotlight. Since 2013, videos, photos and Tweeted narratives of violent encounters between White police and unarmed Black people have disseminated widely though news and social media, galvanising public rage. [iii] This has led to the creation the most prodigious American protest movement of the century to date; #BlackLivesMatter.[iv] The activists and citizen journalists innovatively combined the advantages of social media with an effort to efficiently spark protests in each city after a police shooting occurs.[v] Social media in social justice journalism has been instrumental in giving citizens evidence and voice.

Video of interview with Dr Lee Duffield

Figure 1 [vi]

 Videos of Black people like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Samuel Dubose, Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin being killed by police officers allowed the public to see what really happened. Social media can act as a source of live, raw information. It can quickly drown the spurious media narratives in an ocean of tweets,[vii] which is promising for the future of social justice journalism. “The ability to record has gotten so prevalent that police can no longer count on their account to be the truth,” Pittsburgh professor, Mr Harris said.[viii] In another incisive comment, law professor at Georgetown University, Paul D. Butler comments: “The videos are smoking-gun evidence.”

“Both literally because they are very graphic, which generates outrage, and figuratively, because people believe their own eyes.”[ix] Twitter and Facebook have become the documentary vehicle for Black Lives Matter activists.[x]  Social media allows them to become social justice citizen journalists, capturing the protests and police responses as trustworthy evidence.[xi]

Related article: The Videos That Are Putting Race and Policing Into Sharp Relief

The general public, journalists and activists used social media to spread and increase visibility of the videos, photos and tweets documenting the incident. [xiii] Social media also provided avenues where the affected minority could express their opinions, share their experience rather than have local media explain their struggle. Nekima Levy­-Pounds, professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law said: “most of the reporters are white, and their managers are white, and the audiences they’re reporting for are mostly white.

“Therefore, their reporting reinforces a very twisted view of protests, emphasising disruption more than the issues, like chronic police misconduct, something white audiences have almost no personal experience with.”[xiv] The social media element of the movement has facilitated the un-airbrushed coverage of the issue of institutional racism in policing and criminal justice. Many statistics and people of colour have been telling this story for many years. However, when a video shows a police officer tasering a Black man they just killed, the issue is brought to the eye of the viewer.

 Figure 2 [xv]

“If you are pursuing social justice, you have to explain, and you want to explain yourself to someone who will listen.
“Social media will let you do that,” says Senior Lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology and former European Correspondent for the BBC, Dr Lee Duffield.

The confronting videos, photos and tweets provides visceral and infallible proof of a problem the majority have downplayed for too long. Social media is giving voice to the marginalised, giving the citizens a chance to be their own reporters. It has provided another dimension to activism –  a digital face.[xvii] This is also appears to be the promising direction social conscience journalism is moving in.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the possibility that social media users are less likely to discuss social policy issues, bringing into effect the “spiral of silence.”[xviii] Pew Research conducted surveys about the efficacy of social media in social justice journalism, following Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of widespread government surveillance of Americans’ phone and email records. Some users also say that social media does not increase exposure to different perspectives on informative content. Social media’s role in the spiral of silence and limiting exposure to less-popular views calls into question its sustainability a tool in social conscience journalism.

In relevance to opinion expression, it was found that individuals would rather concur with the general opinion expressed in their social network rather than voice a minority opinion.[xix] The lack of expression was due to a fear of isolation from their social circle.[xx] Many say that the internet has given a voice to the marginalised in society, that those who dissent from popular opinion have a variety of ways to express them. From Facebook to Twitter, opinion-expression platforms are not lacking. But as the managing editor of U.S. News & World Report, Lee Rainie pointed out: “Those who use Facebook were more only willing to share their views if they thought their followers agreed with them.”[xxi] Furthermore, this pattern persisted in offline exchanges, ironically rendering the opinion-expressing platforms into obstacles to sharing ideas.

 [Audio of Excerpt of Interview with Dr Lee Duffield]

Figure 3 [xxii]

“Publishing by yourself can be quite lonely, even in a group.
“You can be intimidated – that’s probably not going to go away,” Dr Lee Duffield summarises. This however, could be a positive trend. Popular hashtags for the Ferguson incident were #Ferguson, #MikeBrown and #BlackLivesMatter. In a qualitative examination on these hashtags, a majority of the tweets share the view that the officer’s shooting was unjustifiable.[xxiii] There were few that expressed the opposing opinion. This lack of contrary opinion demonstrates how the dominant opinion can take over; Illustrating a spiral of silence in which the prevailing opinion achieves more traction because people are reserved about expressing their opposing views. As seen in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the spiral of silence created by social media can serve as a major force in social justice journalism.

While it is evident that the dissemination of online media has revolutionised how people stay informed on current events. The amount of content has increased exponentially, but this has also resulted in selective exposure. Little effort is required to create a narrow media feed that is accordance with personal opinions.[xxiv] While being in a social-justice-centered niche can foster awareness and growth, it can lead to other problems. Claire Miller of The New York Times comments: “the internet, it seems, is contributing to the polarisation of America, as people surround themselves with people who think like them and hesitate to say anything different. Internet companies magnify the effect, by tweaking their algorithms to show us more content from people who are similar to us.”[xxv] With complex codes and algorithms aimed to show users the most agreeable content, social media do not usually show the user opinions outside of their comfort zone. As a result, people can lose touch with the perspectives, and opinions on issues being discussed by society. This could be detrimental to the goal of social justice journalism as citizens need to understand issues holistically in order to progress.

Expression of opinion is a necessary part of societal development; opinion expression underpins a democracy. In today’s social-media-centric world, opinion expression often occurs on social media platforms. Users can Tweet their fury at the New York Police Department for killing Eric Garner post their non-controversial view on Edward Snowden’s revelations on Facebook. By examining the effect of social media on the reportage and discussion of current, socio-political events, it is becoming clearer that social media has an important role in the future of social justice journalism. It is evident where this tool can act as an opinion-expression platform and where it can to improve to allow for more exposure to differing opinions. Dr Duffield aptly concludes: “I feel optimistic, though I think it’s still early days. It can evolve well. And you’re going to get more communication, including people running social justice movements, and we certainly need those. It’s starting to show possibility, it’s starting to show strength.”

 Word count: 1554



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