Wednesday, January 19, 2022

How social media is revolutionizing protest culture

When American poet and soul/jazz musician Gil Scott Heron wrote ‘The revolution will not be televised’, he must have been a man ahead of his time. Nowadays, it is very common for an uprising to gain momentum in social media circles before the mainstream media catches wind of it.

In the past, political and social commentary has was the preserve of traditional media ÔÇô articulated through camera lenses and newspaper articles- which were fully trusted by the public as the ultimate sources of information. However, the internet age is now upon us and social media is fostering a change in communication and news reporting. One of the most prolific examples of this cultural change is the protest culture. 

Social media has undoubtedly caused a paradigm shift and is fast cementing itself as the ‘breaking news’ platform, replacing traditional mediums such as television and print. In this age of facebook, what’s trending and hashtags, news are now disseminated in real time and traditional media platforms regularly find themselves trailing behind as news explode on social media before they appear on a television broadcast or a newspaper front page. Social media has an added advantage in that it is interactive, such that the audience gets to have the report from all angles, the factual, the exaggerated and the overtly fabricated’ with pictures, cartoons and memes to boot.

The hashtag feesmustfall made international headlines last year as South African tertiary students united in protest against an increase in fees, bringing down the tertiary education to its system as they demanded an end to what they called ‘debt sentences in the name of education.’

In a matter of days, the hashtag had become a movement in itself, depicting another face to the situationÔÇöstudents being criminalized, tear gassed and arrested by police; a subtle nostalgia of 1976, despite their largely peaceful protests. This protest got the attention of many and attracted global support from the US, India, London and Australia, where students stood in solidarity with their counterparts in South Africa against an increment that would see many unable to pay their fees. 

In Botswana, social media is growing tremendously as a platform for political and social discourse, though informal and highly influenced by trends. From the crippling water crisis to Berry Heart’s bodily protest of ‘sexual liberation’, we saw many Batswana taking to various social platforms to engage and air out their opinions. In a country were protest culture is not evident and many are conservative, social media offers a glimpse into what occupies Batswana’s minds.

It is apparent that social networks have exposed the loopholes in mainstream traditional media, especially in situations where a story is intentionally denied coverage and where the narrative regarding how the story is reported appears biased and discriminating. Nonetheless, social media is often plagued by irregularities such as fabricated reports and hoaxes.

In a study by Tim Markham titled ‘Social Media, Protest Cultures and Political Subjectivities’, Markham argues that protest culture and social media enable affective and political projection, but overlooks politics in its institutional, professional and procedural forms. He also said there is no suggestion in the literature that the majority of tweets are politically or culturally transformative in themselves, but are productive of somethingÔÇôbe it freer discourse, more creative activism or a different way of inhabiting mediated worlds.

Nic Newman of British Broadcasting Corp explained that: “It is inevitable that social media will change things. Journalism will be more transparent and use a wider variety of views; but there will be new pressure on journalists to have time to think.” 

We cannot deny the power of social media. It has aided uprisings such as the ‘Occupy Movement’, the Egyptian uprising and the Tunisian revolution to mention a few. Hashtags have borne new identities such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ brought across conversations that mainstream media fears to unpack. These days, even racial or discriminatory comments can have one losing their job and publicly denounced. One can only wonder about the future, if hashtags and facebook posts will be cited in academia and if indeed revolutions of the world need not be televised.

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