Challenging mainstream narratives with social media
Readers, listeners and viewers now have access to a simple, but potentially hugely effective platform to express themselves, challenge, and often mock, the mainstream narrative of big stories, Milana Knezevic writes.
14 May 13

A lot has been said about the impact of social media on the dissemination of news and the future of journalism. Opinions seem to span from believing Twitter and Facebook hold the power to bring down dictatorships, to despairing at the space it gives to armchair analysis and knee jerk reactions. One thing can be agreed upon: readers, listeners and viewers now have access to a platform to express themselves and challenge the mainstream narrative of events, Milana Knezevic writes.

Take Newsweek’s #MuslimRage debacle from last September. The magazine’s main article about protests over the controversial film Innocence of Muslims, featured a front page with angry men in traditional clothing, under the headline “MUSLIM RAGE.” Newsweek posted a link on their official twitter feed, encouraging their followers to voice their opinions under the hashtag #MuslimRage. And voice them they did:

On the surface, this shows how a carefully planned “social media strategy” can go wrong in an instant. More importantly, it shows that traditional media outlets no longer have as much control over the conversations around their coverage.

Social media and other online platforms give readers the ability to speak out and take part in setting the agenda. The age of user generated content has also ushered in a kind of crowdsourced fact-checking on a massive scale. If a story is being misreported, readers, listeners and viewers can and will let the authors know. Other examples include the huge social media backlash CNN faced over their article on hormonal female voters ahead of the US elections. On a lighter note, viewers lambasted NBC’s shambolic  Olympics coverage through hashtags like #NBCfail and #ShutUpMattLauer.

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Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this development is the platform it has provided for people outside of the western world to speak back against the often simplistic and incorrect way in which their nations and cultures are reported on in international media.

For instance, some journalists are still likely to present African countries as one, exclusively impoverished and backward entity, which is constantly balancing on the brink of war. Alternatively, there is the increasingly popular, but almost equally tedious and one-dimensional “Africa rising” narrative.

In the past, people had few possibilities to respond to such coverage — if it even reached them.  But this has changed with the dawn of the internet. As foreign reporters parachuted in to cover the Kenyan elections in March, an easy go-to story following the crisis of the 2007-2008 vote was that of ethnic tensions and the potential for violence. However, this narrative was undermined the fact that most Kenyans went to the polls peacefully.  Foreign media promptly experienced the full wrath of a well-informed and snarky Kenyan social media population.

The below are only a few examples of the hashtag #PicturesForStuart, aimed at France 24 anchor Stuart Norval, who trailed their Kenya report with a tweet promising “dramatic pictures”:

Then there was #SomeoneTellCNN, aimed at a particularly sensationalist CNN report titled “Armed as Kenyan vote nears”, featuring an unknown militia, seemingly consisting of a group of men rolling around in the grass with homemade weapons.  The piece was widely mocked.

There was also the more general #TweetLikeAForeignJournalist:

The hashtags trended worldwide. This was picked up by Al Jazeera and the Washington Post among others, and prompted CNN to release a statement defending their coverage. Kenyans had successfully turned the lazy journalism into the dominant story. As Africa is the fastest growing smartphone market in the world, over the coming years millions more will get the opportunity to challenge one-dimensional international reporting.

It’s important not to overstate the power of social media. Traditional media still commands the biggest platforms and audiences, and many sensationalist, ignorant or incorrect reports do remain unchallenged. Twitter in itself is not a solution, it is simply a tool. Used correctly, it provides a legitimate possibility for people to collectively raise their voice and be heard. It provides the platform for those on the ground, those in the know and everyone in between to help bring balance and nuance to big news stories. And that is certainly a positive development for freedom of expression.


By Milana Knezevic

Milana Knezevic is the Assistant Editor, Online and News of Index on Censorship