The Age of Information has brought endless positive change to our lives, from the ability to learn about anything, to the ability to communicate with anyone in a couple of taps. However, it has also decidedly brought us a new kind of problem: an ability to react to anything in any way.
We all know that social media has evolved from just being a medium of communication and an outlet to share our lives with friends. Now, influential people from celebrities to politicians use it as a voice for their platform to spread awareness of their cause—be it cancer research or re-election. Billions of people rely on it to stay up to date with recent events. Yet, unlike most news corporations, the posts people upload to their social media, whether it be Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, are not fully regulated by anything except the writer’s conscience.
Sure, Instagram might be able to discern whether your video has copyrighted music in it, and Facebook might be on the constant lookout for posts that raise red flags in terms of being terroristic or dangerous. But, for the most part, people can often say whatever they want without having to worry about an editor screening their tweet.
Of course, freedom of speech is protected under the First Amendment; and unless someone has a significant following, most people will not notice their couple words on a controversial subject. However, what about people who do have a couple thousand followers? Most news corporations are known for being biased in a certain direction, from left to right on the political spectrum. But this line of bias becomes blurred in the world of social media, where rather than posting under the name of a known news company, you can post under a different name: your own. It becomes far more difficult for readers to actively discern any partiality, and the result is one where, in the aftermath of a controversial event, the outcry can be disproportionately affected by a single side. Think of it like a chain reaction: once one person begins posting a response to an event, then everyone who sees it, without having seen any other reactions to the event, is more likely than not to agree with the person’s stance, leading to more posts of the same bias. This is especially worsened considering the anonymity of social media; most people do not have their Twitter handles associated with their real names, meaning they can say whatever extreme message they want about an event without much fear of repercussion; this allows sensationalized or even false messages to be posted that would not be seen from a credible news corporation.
Take for instance, the H&M controversy from last month—one that you most likely heard about from, well, social media. A child model wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Coolest Monkey In the Jungle” was black, contrasting with another white model wearing “Mangrove Jungle Survival Expert”. The outcry was obvious; there is a definite and terrible history of how African Americans have been associated with monkeys, and H&M failed to realize this.
But, at the same time, this outcry was one that was extremely personal and, in a way, overdone.
There was a flurry on Twitter as the news of the sweatshirt spread, from New York Times columnist Charles Blow tweeting a picture of the sweatshirt and model in question with, “@hm, have you lost your damned minds?!?” to NBA star Lebron James reposting a picture where the model was exhibited instead with a crown covering the words. Again, there is nothing wrong with responding to controversy through social media. But a few days after the controversy, H&M stores in South Africa were vandalized and ransacked by protesters from the Economic Freedom Fighters Party. A ferocious social media storm translated into real world actions, affecting H&M employees who were not involved in the design of the sweatshirt or selection of the mode in any way.
It is important to use our voice to speak out against wrongs in the world—that is the only way change comes about. However, social media grants more power than we think. And when a mass of people all come together to go against injustice, it can have far reaching and unexpected effects. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. As writer and political analyst Yousef Munayyer once wrote: “Writers and artists should be able to express themselves provocatively, but what they will provoke is impossible to know.”
Graphic: Anika Tsapatsaris