Mobile Phones, Citizen Activism, and “The People Formerly Known as the Audience”

Activism in the digital age is powered by the people “formerly known as the audience”: regular citizens who capture footage and share information publically through new media technology, specifically, mobile phones. Cellphones have given individuals the opportunity to communicate and share knowledge outside of mass media confines, developing movements that actively challenge mass media misconduct.

The invention of mobile phones brought a new element to the game, in that it made regular citizens “owners and operators of tools that were one exclusively used by media people” (The People Formerly Known as the Audience). The camera phone was the beginning of a platform shift that led us to the world we know today, where people capture pictures and videos of all kinds of events, good and bad, and broadcast them to the world with the click of a button. Focusing more specifically on the bad, the camera phone gave people an opportunity to capture acts of injustice either accidentally or intentionally omitted by mass media, and share them on their own terms. Now, the “shooting, editing and distributing of video [that] once belonged to Big Media,” belongs to the people — to every person with a camera phone. This gives people the opportunity to see the world through a different lens, outside the mass media scope, and a new freedom to think for themselves, which can lead to citizen-led activism. One early example of this was the 1991 police brutality case, in which four white police officers brutally beat the black motorist Rodney King. The event was captured on video by a bystander, who shared it publicly and ultimately changed the course of the incident for the LAPD and Rodney King on that night. The case, which would have been a significantly smaller deal if not for the insight provided by the citizen-captured video, led to the Los Angeles riots after the four police officers were acquitted. The riots, which were in protest of the overt racism and bias evident in the case, are an example of people’s activism that resulted from early citizen journalism — an onlooker with a camera. This is what we see regularly in today’s society, where movements like the Black Lives Matter campaign are supported by video evidence of police brutality and acts of racism, often captured via smartphone.

Mobile phones as tools for citizen activism are something that is seen more and more as our society transitions towards increasing Internet activity and continues the development of new media technology. The photo/video recording features and capacity for connectivity available on such small, advanced devices, makes them ideal instruments for capturing and sharing information almost immediately, which in turn can inspire impressive citizen reaction and engagement. It is important to recognize the mobile phone as not just a device for capturing selfies in the best light, but as a tool for encouraging democratic action and drawing attention to human rights violations, like in the case of Rodney King.