Beyond social media
(This is a reflective piece on activism, stemming from my long and incessant usage of social media to advocate for different causes. While the messages are taking fluid shapes, it is unsatisfying to see how activism is mostly relegated to social media platforms and hopes for change are pinned to such spaces. Nevertheless, my speculations are less apologetic and remain more focused on exciting approaches to activism.)
The words sound contemporary, non-mainstream and active.
It is a form of struggle using the tool of audio-visual technology to bring into light the struggles that remain lost in the traffic of ‘mainstream news’. This form of activism, like others, aims at bringing about change, most specifically at the enactment level by the government.
At a recent conference on Video Activism in Berlin, I was met with an interesting pool of activists, researchers and scholars from different countries; all of whom were engaged in identifying and mapping the different notions of video documentation. While there was much debate about the epistemological reasoning, there was to my utmost dismay a narrow space for discussing an equally important issue at stake — the platforms that one uses to advocate their messages.
We live in a hyper-connected world. And this should give us enough reasons to celebrate the possibilities of linking our struggles, using each other’s skills, in short making a revolution possible. Unfortunately, this paradise is not the one that we had hoped to live in. Instead what we are faced with is massive data breach, manipulation of our opinions (political, socio-economic), and the threat of constant surveillance. It will come as much less of a surprise to the reader that the computer networks today are tightly held in the hands of a few monopolies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.
What does this mean for the field of activism which presupposes that the message is greater than the medium? Or is it?
Marshall McLuhan in 1964 (in ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of a Man) coined the phrase “the medium is the message”. It simply means that the form of the medium gets embedded in the message, thereby influencing the message. A pertinent example that he gives is of the light bulb which itself is without any content but acts like a medium and thus, a message by bringing light to people and catalysing social communication. A similar analogy can be made regarding social media -> a dominant platform for distributing documented videos to the rest of the world. Social media by design, lacks any content of its own and instead relies on the people to upload messages and interact.
At the conference, one of activists from Syria advocates passionately about social media platforms such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter and their use for revolutionary purposes. While this may seem plausible, what is interesting to note is the inability of the current Syrian government regime to stop the spreading of anti-government messages on social media when other mediums like newspaper, television and radio had already been blocked out.
A likely reason could be the US foreign policy that the American based companies Facebook and Google (Youtube) have chosen to align themselves with. While both Facebook and Youtube have stringent community standards laid out for the users, disallowing violent and pornographic content (as in the case of drug wars in North Mexico), leeways have been given for content coming from Syria — even if they had been ‘violating’ the companies’ norms.
Similarly, the video resistances emanating from Turkey have also primarily been distributed on social media. This has occurred in consequence to the close ties between the mainstream media and the Turkish government along-with other neo-capitalist sectors. A glaring example of this accusation is evident from the 2013 Gezi resistance. Similar are the examples from India, China and elsewhere.
But I am puzzled. How can the same companies — the mediums who have a strict profit generating motive and whose ‘anti-democratic, monopoly-oriented, radical libertarianism values’ could be more problematic than ever, be of use to activism? With the use of algorithms and human content moderation, our newsfeed (a major source of news production) provides us with messages based on our preferences. What we already know is reinstated but what we do not know is shunned away from us. Therefore, bringing down the pinnacle of diversity that social media was established upon. What is fake is reinstated as reality. Therefore, manufacturing consent through forms, we have not been unwarned about.
I agree that I weave a simplistic narrative. But it is not without a reason.
While video activism is becoming an empowering medium through the subject’s realisation of her political reality, our over-whelming reliance on and blatant trust in these monopolistic social media platforms is what I fear. Video activism is about presenting an alternative reality to the hegemonic discourse that has been set infront of us, it is about social communication that can ignite change, it is about, as one of the speakers at the conference heralded, building a new political subject.
Our use of social media can be useful to connect together with activists across the world. But we are losing sight of the fact that it is dominating the discourse on activism. It cannot become the message/s when the world is in much need of changes and better discourses. While the fight against injustice sustains across the world, let us remember that shaping a social reality based on equality is not without suffering. This suffering could also mean giving up our comfort, ease of access and finding alternative, open source and honest mediums to communicate our message.