In March, as the world seemed to descend into some sort of horror-thriller (honestly how many ways can you describe 2020), I found myself obsessed with checking the news. I turned on The Guardian and BBC News notifications on my phone and found myself lost in articles for hours each morning. Like many families, we would sit around the TV in silence every evening to watch the announcements in a state of disbelief. Friends of mine likened this community spirit to the war; we were the wives of soldiers, checking the radio constantly for updates.
Yet a lot of us were angry: angry at how the government dealt with the situation, angry at these WW2 glorifications because this is what they wanted us to think – that Boris, a Churchillian figure was our saving grace and soon things would be back to normal. We were suspicious: every day my mum and I would discuss the infection rate, the death toll, and wonder how accurately the situation was reflected in those numbers. But to those, like myself, who knew no one with the virus, the news was a way of reminding us daily of its grave importance. Reminding us that it was real, that the requirement to stay safe and protect others was there. The news to me was an overarching authority, it told me what I could do and kept me in a constant state of fear.
Checking the news in this obsessive way was new for me. Before the pandemic, the majority of the time, it almost seems like an unconscious decision to turn to social media to stay in the loop. It is not as if I avoided reading the news per se, but social media sites seemed to feed me everything I needed to know. This is not a new phenomenon of course. During my research I came across an article from 2010 which marvelled at how more and more people were turning to sites like Twitter and Instagram for information – the ‘social media revolution’ it is termed. Today, it just feels like a fact.
Recently, the use of social media for current information came to the forefront after the murder of George Floyd. We all became activists overnight – perhaps too late – but the sharing of anger in the form of infographics and videos was extraordinary. This period definitely treated the news suspiciously – it was clear that people could not trust news reports in the same way that they could not trust the police. In the US, footage of police attacking protestors at Black Lives Matter protests was cut; it was apparent that many were receiving different stories from the news, versus the videos that people took out on the front line. For example, this video of an NYPD cop car battering into protestors was either edited when appearing on US news platforms or, in this case Sunday TODAY clearly demonises protestors by emphasising the violence of the protestors rather than the police ‘oh yes they ran over protestors, but’.
Something positive I have noticed over recent months that causes it to stand out from traditional news platforms is that social media encourages immediate action. The circulation of petitions, protest information, guides on writing to your local MP encouraged people, including myself to do a lot more about the current events we were witnessing. By sharing this information which insists itself onto your feed, we see our peers acting, instead of watching the news through a glass screen feeling utterly powerless. We are all journalists, writing to our friends, families and politicians and exercising the fury we felt.
Of course, social media has issues with bias. The overwhelming quantity of information out there does mean that things can go wrong. False reporting is rife – a paper in 2019 entitled Death By Twitter analyses false death announcements which cause panic on social media, including in 2015 when #RIPBeyonce began trending. Of course any infographics, tweets, pictures, and videos should be taken with a pinch of salt as time and time again we learn that social media can only show so much of a story. But bias is unavoidable.
In light of this, in a recent interview comedian Katherine Ryan argued to cancel the news – “It is no longer unbiased journalism, especially in certain places, and I think it can be very inflammatory… Cancel the news – we have Twitter, we have Instagram. Give me the weather, not the news.” And, in many ways, I agree with her.
Social media is a wonderful albeit stressful place. We have access to people’s opinions and stories, right there in the thick of it all. It makes the world seem smaller and bigger all at once. Social media is used to expose dark realities and these bright, bubbly, and accessible graphics seemed to reach out to audiences that had otherwise remained oblivious.
But we cannot forget turning to the news to tell us what to do in times of crisis was necessary. Terrified and lost, we had no choice but to seek guidance from our televisions. So, perhaps, we’re not completely done with the news just yet.
Photo courtesy of Siora Photography