It bears reminding in the age of Twitter that Marshall McLuhan was on to something when he remarked in 1964 that, ‘The medium is the message.’ The medium itself tampers with content, having its own distinct qualities. Message and medium are involved in a dance of meaning. Enter then, the social media crazes, where content and the means of delivery become muddled and complementary forces. Throw in politics, and the mix becomes heady.
Social media becomes the tool by which Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak was brought to his knees. How tempting it is to neglect pre-existing discontent and revolutionary forces. Social media was the mechanism that enabled Barack Obama to be elected. As in Egypt, other factors are conveniently sidelined. During the Virginia Tech massacres of April 2007, students were texting and ‘facebooking’ such messages as ‘Facebook saved my life’, giving it an agency of its own. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg should be sanctified. Jamal Albarghouti, who was a graduate student at Virginia Tech, recorded an onsite video during the shootings, ‘using the video function on his cell phone while ducking for safety outside the building where the shooting occurred.’ For all of that, he has become, on a Facebook description, a ‘citizen journalist’.
The latest example of social media activism, morality at a click (un-friending wicked Facebook friends, to give one example) is the YouTube film Kony 2012. The dubious protagonist of the production is Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army, child kidnapper extraordinaire. ‘YouTube, Twitter and Facebook’, writes Sharon Waxman for Reuters (Mar 9), ‘can hardly be dismissed as a means to stop an obscure Ugandan crazyman with a penchant for murdering children.’ The video, produced by the advocacy group Invisible Children, has gone ‘viral’, having attained over 70 million views. The piece is also heavy with sentimental portrayals and soundtrack.
This is a spectacular example about how the Australian journalist and blogger, Andrew Bolt, has called ‘no-sweat moralising’. For all his customary right wing huffing, Bolt does describe such acts of faux compassion rather well. ‘How intoxicating for virtual friends everywhere. One click and Kony’s gone. The world remade. And they don’t even have to leave the house’ (Herald Sun, Mar 12).
The social theorists are having a field day with these emerging technologies, assuming that a Matrix-like world has descended upon us, one where Citizen Neo does battle with machines and computer viruses in the desert of the real. Welcome, they proclaim, to the simulacrum, where the concept of the original is dead, and a production of copies and replicas are on offer. Was it in fact Osama bin Laden who was buried at sea or did his corpse get flown back to the US for speedy and discrete cremation, as alleged in a leaked email by the private intelligence firm Stratfor?
Social media proponents crowded around with the answer: like a true saint, Osama bilocated – his body was in both places at once. After going through such material, one is either bound to be a committed cynic, or at the very least a moral relativist. Given how many times bin Laden was ‘killed’ prior to his Whitehouse streamed assassination, it is with a degree of irony that he should then die amidst the speculations of social media.
The field of activism and social media is a mask. It has the appearance of usefulness, the morality that assumes some force simply because a mouse is clicked. When you start looking past the mask, you end up with the Edinburgh University student Tom MacMaster who pretended to be a Syrian lesbian blogger by the name of Amina Abdallah Aral al Omari. One blog entry supposedly came from ‘Istanbul’ – ‘The events [in the Middle East] are being shaped by the people living there on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience’ (Guardian, Jul 13, 2011). MacMaster’s activism blew up in his face when the server links were discovered. One can only speculate about his actual effects on the Syrian gay community.
Ignore such aberrations, claim the social media moralists. Social media is, in fact, an innately good phenomenon – or at the very least, a phenomenon for good. It inspires revolutions; it might be used to capture alleged killers. So it is peopled by the odd do-gooding charlatan – but isn’t everything?
With all of this, the frenzy associated with the Kony 2012 YouTube video is almost understandable. It is morality that has gone virtual, and shows disengagement rather than interest. It is the face of modern charity, with even more shabbiness than a donation made to a religious institution thinking about ‘those children in Africa’. More to the point, is shows a confusion with the medium, affording it its own reality, its own dispensing powers, even revolutions. Unfriending demons and beasts has become a message of its own, an online commitment. As Tom Standage shows well in his book The Victorian Internet (1998) describing the range of influences had by the creation of the telegraph, human nature should not be confused with technology. ‘Given a new invention, there will always be some people who see only its potential to do good, while others see new opportunities to commit crime or make money.’ Prosaic but true.