This piece won the University of Houston — MSA 2014 scholarship award

The advent of social media has sparked revolutionary steps as a platform to promote good and has lent itself as an amplifier to voices aiming to curtail the evil so rampant in the world that they perceive. More often than not, users of these various social media platforms share information which reinforces the perspectives of the users themselves. This phenomenon, more commonly known as sensationalism, while raising awareness of issues, undermines the facts and leads to conclusions by a vast number of individuals who have little or no knowledge of the context in which a certain issue has developed. This essay will examine certain examples of causes or conflicts ridden with sensationalistic patterns originally promoted with the intent of good will to ‘simply inform’.

Sensationalism is best defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement”. With respect to social media, the ‘speed of provocation’ is vital. Instances of such can be seen in the information being passed around regarding the Syrian conflict. What we have ended up with, is a plethora of sensationalistic headlines and pictures bombarding our timelines and newsfeeds in a way that enforces shapes and affects our pre-existing notions with a side effect of desensitization. While mainstream media is often criticised for broadcasting situations in ways that are far from the reality on ground, social media can also be criticised in the same manner and even more so because everyone with a username is potentially his or her own news channel. This does nothing but plunder the audience into further confusion due to the simple fact that many lack the understanding of the context which may have been deliberately distorted from the source. Context is important, and without the basic knowledge of the foundations of conflicts, ones perception of a conflict can be dangerously one sided

Social media has aided in what is perceived to be a vast world that is gradually getting smaller because we are more connected, at least on a technological level. Influences cut across dealings and happenings around us and to an extent even shape our private lives. The knowledge of conflicts, weather, impending disasters in one area of the globe suddenly becomes of interest to one unrelated to the matter at hand (except perhaps by our humanitarian natures). The ‘shrinking’ of the globe is one of the reasons why pinpointing and curtailing social media sensationalism is difficult as (mis)information reaches nooks and crannies with ease. This requires surface understanding of the ‘medium’ of information transfer with respect to how a receiver perceives a given headline in juxtaposition with the propagator of the information (link, tweet etc.). The significant difference between this study and that of the mass media is the speed or wave of propagation, its impact and its re-circulation. When something is termed as ‘viral’ on social media platforms, we are being told that it is being circulated at an alarming rate all over the world to anyone who has access to these platforms. Perfect examples are Hash tag tweets ‘#StopKony’ of the Invisible Children’s organization and their 30 minute video.

To illustrate what has been so far about sensationalism in our shrinking world and the speed of propagation, we should look at the example of the crisis in CAR which has little context but seems to buttress a narrative of one side antagonising the other for a very long period, thereby discarding the catastrophe preceding the ‘Muslim Cleansing’ campaign in the country. The catalysts of this of course were viral pictures of bodies and unverified mob violence captured where victims seen lynched were presumed to be Muslim automatically. An actual picture of the story would instead depict reprisals (eventually leading to Genocide) from the Anti-Balaka (predominantly non-Muslim group) on innocent Muslims as a result of the Muslim dominated Seleka rebel’s war crimes and other excesses prior to power vacuum in Bangui. So we can see from this example that serious issues, with serious problems in a certain country become even bigger problems for people in separate places because of a lack of authentic, context based information or the clarification of it. This coupled with sensationalism, speed and more accessible receivers in the struggle of fighting for ‘the good’ can be problematic to both victims and Activist.

An apt example is that of the ‘#StopKony’ campaign set by the Invisible Children’s Organization. A good cause to help a kid from getting kidnap turned into ‘imperialist saviour operation’ via the use of imperialists with questionable legacies and the current oppressive Ugandan government foot soldiers that ironically the ‘kidnappers’ whom are rebels of the Lord Resistance Army themselves claimed to be resisting for two decades. As at the time of the report, Kony hadn’t been in Uganda in a long time. Teju Cole delivers scathing critique of both receiving and propagating stake holders in the media world. He critiques the information ‘propagator’ ignorant distortion of the real situation saying:

“He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated ‘disasters.’ All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need,”

Re- emphasizing the importance of journalists and activists getting the authentic context, he adds, “…there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”

In summary, we can clearly see the unseen harm of deliberate neglect of sensationalism in conflicts. Efforts must be made to not only curb and challenge harmful media bias but also unchecked sensationalism in dealing with instant information been propagated or received irrespective of the source’s reputation. The problem for experts to handle both in the technology and media industry is with respect to creating or establishing verification themes and guidelines that can help the avid news reader or activist in any society.

Work Cited

Keller Jarred. “This Hashtag kills fascists: Does Social Media in America work?”, Aljazeera America, April 2014. (Accessed on 17 April 2014)