Mainstream Media and Oppositional Memes in the Digital Age

By Deana Rohlinger

It is an exciting and challenging time for social movements. Internet Communication Technologies (ICTs) have altered the media landscape, turning some of what we know about media-movement interactions on its head.

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From The Daily Beast

Let’s start with the good news. ICTs have changed the power dynamics between social movements and the mainstream news. If you’ve read William Gamson and Gadi Wolfsfeld’s (1993) piece, then you know that traditionally media-movement dynamics are asymmetrical and do not favor activists. The reason for this is simple. While activists are almost always looking to educate and connect with a broader public, their ideas are rarely newsworthy enough to warrant media attention. Twenty years ago, activists looking to attract the media spotlight and get decent coverage of their causes had limited options. They could work their journalistic connections, come up with a novel, nonviolent, and culturally appropriate tactics to pique media interest, or stage an event whose size or importance is interesting enough to warrant media attention. Mainstream media, in short, was a tough nut to crack.

This is less true in the digital age. Journalists are awash in information and under a lot of pressure to make themselves and their outlets stand out. Increasingly, they turn to social media platforms such as Twitter to share their stories with the public and assess whether what’s trending online is also newsworthy. The public and their 140 character or less conversations, in other words, play a more active role in the news production process than ever before, and this advantages activists.

Just consider the influence of “Black Twitter” on mainstream media outlets over the last few years. Important conversations such as #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter began online and sent shock waves through some of America’s most powerful institutions – Hollywood and Capitol Hill – and mainstream media amplified the calls for change. This, however, isn’t always good for social movements or the people they represent. In his piece for The Daily Beast, Stereo Williams notes, “Mainstream media platforms mine Black Twitter for content and ideas. Popular hashtags become fixtures on the nightly news and Twitter is breaking news stories hours and sometimes days before CNN or Fox News.” But, as Williams also observes, mainstream media rarely shine a light on the problems behind the hashtag or employ people of color to cover important issues. He writes:

It’s recognized that mainstream media has acknowledged the creators of #BlackLivesMatter and other Twitter hashtags that have sparked movements; those creators have had to remain steadfastly committed to combating their own erasure at the hands of all-too-generic news segments that simply credit “Twitter” with drawing attention to an issue. But once #BlackLivesMatter became a movement, how many media companies sought out black people on the front lines to put to work telling the story?

There is a point about movement-media dynamics in the digital age here as well. Activists still rarely get credit for their ideas. And, this is the bad news, getting credit and decent coverage for social movement ideas does not appear to be any easier in the contemporary era – at least in mainstream media outlets.

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Why? Because, while how mainstream journalists find information has changed, the way they report it has not. In fact, journalists at the most influential print and broadcast news outlets are also the most likely to use social platforms like Twitter to reinforce their occupational role as a “gatekeeper” of information (see for example, Lasorsa, Lewis, and Holton 2012).

These online practices have real consequences for social movements. Hashtags are easily stripped from a meaningful context and pitted against another opposing hashtag, which sometimes represents the disjointed perspectives of a handful of individuals rather than an opposing movement. Sure, opponents have been able to activate the balance norm for decades in order to get themselves into the news. The difference here is that opponents are a meme, not an organized group working against change.

#AllLivesMatter is a great example of an opponent that seems to be little more than a meme with a Facebook page designed to criticize #BlackLivesMatter for making matters of race and justice central to the public conversation. If you read the posted pinned to the top of the All Lives Matter page (which is copied below), you’ll find that the goal of the groups is anything but clear. And, if you skim some of the posts, you won’t be any clearer on the purpose of the page.

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Of course, you wouldn’t know that #AllLivesMatter was a knee jerk reaction by largely white Americans asked to confront racism from watching the nightly news. Instead, mainstream news made it an issue of difference within the African-American community. Whether it was Senator Tim Scott defending the use of #AllLivesMatter on CNN or Seattle Seahawk’s cornerback Richard Sherman’s above-the-fray tweets responding to his critics for denouncing the #BlackLivesMatter movement, mainstream media effectively made the movement a problem of perspective within the black community rather than a serious issue affecting every aspect of American life.

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And, that’s the rub. Movement-media dynamics have shifted more in the favor of movements, but they also have shifted in favor of virtually everyone else with a phone and a Twitter account.

One thing is clear. There are no easy answers for activists in the digital age. Sure, they have more tools than ever before at their disposable and, arguably, opportunities to affect institutional change abound. The obstacles they face, however, are just as onerous as before. Only now, the opponent they face may be little more than a short-lived meme that is amplified by journalists in mainstream media who are unwilling to challenge the professional norms by which they operate.

In the digital era, news may get to us at break-neck speed on our smart phones, but the conventions that shape the narratives we get remain the same. Until mainstream journalists are willing to step outside of their professional comfort zone, social movements face an uphill battle.

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1 Comment

Filed under 5 Year Anniversary, Uncategorized

One response to “Mainstream Media and Oppositional Memes in the Digital Age

  1. Reblogged this on Deana's Blog and commented:
    Check out Mobilizing Idea’s new essay dialogue. Here is my contribution.

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