The town sleeps. The streets snooze. The lampposts flicker out one by one, heralding the arrival of morning. In the distance, a cycle approaches. The metallic chime of its bell slices through the crisp cold air. Its wheels rotate rhythmically. The rider atop the cycle rounds a corner now. He slows in front of an imposing house and, with a swift flick of his wrist, tosses a rolled wad of paper onto the doormat. Like this, he continues - cycling, slowing, tossing, cycling, slowing, tossing. No one comes out to pick up the papers. Not yet. No, it is too early. But an hour from now, perhaps half an hour for the early risers, the people in these houses will awaken. They will totter out onto their porches, swing open their front doors and find the world’s news condensed into a modest 11 by 17 inches, delivered to their doorstep.
Can you picture this? Depending on how old you are, this scenario is either intimately familiar to you or hazily foreign. If, like me, you were born on the tail end of the 20th century or the cusp of the 21st, you may instead be familiar with news delivered not to your doorstep, but into your palm and pocket. Not on physical paper, but digital screens. Not an isolated experience in the quiet of your house but a shared experience in the communal space of the digital world.
What does this mean for the landscape of news? Suddenly, old balances of power are being inverted. In today’s age, the flow of news no longer runs top-bottom, from news organisations to audiences, but is more directly wired to the pulse of public opinion. For instance, a story that might be neglected by mainstream media organisations is amplified and magnified by the megaphone of social media until it becomes impossible (even unprofitable) for traditional media to ignore. Next thing you know, it’s raining op-eds and editorials, guides and factsheets, the news media is pouncing on the story, playing ‘catch-up’. There are several notable examples of this: from #BringBackOurGirls and #MeToo and, prominently, #BlackLivesMatter to, on the climate change front, #AmazonFire or #AustralianBushfires. In a pre-internet age, these stories might have surfaced as odd blips on the news radar. But with the amplifying megaphone of social media, they soar into the stratosphere of the public consciousness and spawn mass cultural reckonings, one day’s online ‘trends’ becoming the next day’s news headlines. Under this framework, something paradigm-shifting happens: neglected stories become newsworthy. And audiences, bypassing the old gatekeepers of the traditional media, become not just consumers of the news, but co-creators.
But there is also another consequence of this development: outside of the news media, social media also signifies gains for representation in broader mainstream discourse. By getting rid of the middleman of the traditional media - print and broadcast, news and publishing alike - social media is vesting laypersons with more agency, and they’re harnessing these profoundly powerful platforms to bridge gaps of representation - one post, one picture at a time.
Take my personal favourite, the instagram account, @brownhistory. With ‘South Asian history retold by the Vanquished’ as its bio, Brown History’s following now racks in at over 500k. Containing both crowdsourced and curated images, the page is sprawling in its scope and rich in its resonance. A great-grandfather’s frayed and fading ‘Indian Empire’ passport from 1928. The Sikh father who chauffeured the Beatles around on their 1968 India tour. Shots of newly arrived South Asian migrants to the UK and MENA region. And black-and-white snaps of smitten couples and their colourful courtships.
But what is most pertinent to note is that Brown History was not started as an archival initiative by a renowned publisher, nor a mainstream newspaper. It owes its origins instead to Ahsun Zafar, a Toronto-based electrical engineer. In an interview with GQ India, Zafar said the intention behind Brown History is to “ultimately end the curse of the single story that has been with us [South Asians] since colonial times”. Perhaps this is what 21st century representation looks like: a people’s history, written by the people, instead of for them. Perhaps accounts such as Brown History are a testament to social media’s rising status as the 21st century heir to traditional media - a landscape where people no longer defer to gatekeeping news organisations or publishing houses, but take the reins of representation in their own hands.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that social media is uniformly blameless or benign. To the contrary, it’s the very virtues of these platforms that are also their vices. The more time I spend on social media - scrolling through a feed that is equal parts Brown History and social justice hashtags and virulent fake news/divisiveness/strangers slinging insults at each other - the more I’m convinced that social media holds a catch-22 at its core: it’s a marvellous megaphone - but it’s at the mercy of the messenger. It accelerates and democratizes the newsmaking process, but tramples on rigorous fact-checking. It provides a platform to marginalised causes but also to unchecked fake news and unrestrained misinformation. Because anything can be broadcasted, everything can. This is the paradox of social media: Is it democracy, or is it anarchy? Or - more troublingly - is it just a really profitable business?
In recent years, more evidence has emerged pointing to the latter. At a 2018 US Senate hearing with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) questioned Zuckerburg on his company’s political ads policy. According to the policy, politicians can pay to run ads - even when they contain blatant misinformation. At one point, AOC asked point-blank, “So you will take down lies?” But in response, Zuckerburg remained evasive. He cited loopholes about ‘context’ - after which the Congresswoman swiftly moved onto the next question. The moral indignation in this line of questioning underlined the stakes at hand: more misinformation equals more polarisation equals an insidious debasing of democratic discourse.
This was 3 years ago. Since then, another US presidential election has come and gone and, even in the maelstrom of this political season, the digital behemoth doubled down on refusing to fact-check political ads. (To be fair, Facebook did temporarily pause all political ads a week before Election Day, and then a month after - but this is the equivalent of a clothing company taking fur coats off the shelf in the last week of winter.) Examples like this point to a broader issue. Social media, with its charming freedoms, is still a business with a bottom line – one where the ethical is not always profitable. Maybe this is the trade we make. Maybe we get visibility for causes and a platform for representation, but, in exchange, we barter scraps of our civil soul - truth, decency, dialogue - until we start to question the fairness of the trade, wonder whether the gains are worth the price.
Over the past decade, with social media’s rise to seemingly universal ubiquity, the consumption and creation of the media at large has fundamentally changed. By breaking up the monopoly of traditional media, social media has ascended into the new newsroom. It’s cemented itself as a megaphone for the marginalised, a kind of people’s podium. But where social media can catalyse democracies, it can also corrupt them. Fundamentally, I believe, social media is the 21st century ‘corridor of power’: host to both goodness and corruption. That is its power.
Manal Nadeem is a current Orwell Youth Prize Fellow whose essay, ‘The Poverty Pandemic’, was a Senior Runner Up for the 2020 Orwell Youth Prize.
Image credit: NLinAtlanta - Visit Minister Sigrid Kaag to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center, The King Center, in Atlanta, Georgia, March 27, 2019 - (c) Celine Admiraal, CAPhotoVision.