Throughout the ages, each major revolution has been preceded by a period of education and propaganda. In the late 17th century, the Enlightenment movement, which questioned traditional authority and advocated improvements in human rights, was spread from the philosophers to the people through pamphlets and speeches. The American emancipation of slaves in 1863 was catalysed by a famous editorial, ‘The Prayer of Twenty Millions’, published in the influential New York Tribune. During the Polish Solidarity movement of the 1980s, newspapers were created to distribute anti-Russian sentiments to the population, sparking national strikes. In each of these examples, as with all major movements in history, revolution has resulted from the ability to instil a desire for change in a large number of individuals. Evidently, without the use of communication, those facing injustice would neither be able to make their suffering known, nor make a stand.
Historically, it has taken months – if not years – to gather enough support to form a movement. The immense organisation required to rally enough supporters to a cause allows injustice to persist for far longer than is excusable. Furthermore, the choices about which information is worth communicating have largely been in the hands of a powerful few. A key example of this was during the Holocaust: despite being uncovered by journalists in 1942, articles about the genocide barely made it onto the tenth pages of British and American magazines, thus leaving the population in the dark about the ongoing crisis. Despite supposed ‘freedom of information’ in both nations, the decisions about which stories deserved public attention were made by those high up in the chain, thus inevitably hindering a democratic society. Hence, in order to encourage a fairer distribution of attention to the world’s multitudinous problems, we must provide the individual members of society with a platform to make their voices heard.
The availability of information is a pillar-stone of democracy and is crucial in allowing the public to make informed choices. The first instance of the media playing a role in protecting human lives was arguably during the Vietnam war, when the lack of censorship surrounding new video technology allowed journalists to broadcast the atrocities committed by the US government directly into American homes. One such shot, the notorious image dubbed the ‘Napalm Girl’, sparked a pacifist protest that lasted the duration of the war. Despite having a damaging impact on the psyche of many American troops, this movement can surely be credited with creating a more involved relationship between politics and the people, and culminating in the end of the war itself. Nevertheless, without the journalists themselves having visited the warzone, camera in hand, it is unlikely that the public would have been aware of the injustices taking place at all. Hence, in the 60s, journalists were vital in conveying this message to the American population. However, in modern-day cases, this middleman can be abolished. Over two billion people own a smartphone with a camera function, enabling footage to be recorded by the very people enduring the iniquity and gleaning insights into areas that journalists cannot reach. Moreover, the ability to instantly upload such footage onto an online platform, accessible to millions of other social-media users, should allow word to spread far before an article has been printed on the issue.
Moreover, social media has become the new platform on which rebellions can be staged. Whereas previous protesters were required to take to the streets or organise strikes, the ability to post support for a cause or share online petitions has become the latest method for orchestrating a movement. The importance of this was demonstrated during the recent Sudan crisis. After the Sudanese government imposed a social media blackout, with stories of the immense injustice taking place within the country remaining absent from the news, it was left to the influencers of Instagram and Twitter to spread the word. It started with a single post by Shahd Khidir, showing her distress at the tyranny suffered in her home country. Within hours, the post had received thousands of likes; and the news spread amongst the highest circles of online influencers, from Rihanna to Cardi B. Consequently, a new trend overwhelmed social media: users began to change their icon photos to a blue circle, representing their defiance of the Sudanese regime and honouring the murdered Mohamed Hashim Mattar. The combined effect of millions of social media accounts uniting in protest brought the attention of those in power. This directly led to the creation of a petition demanding a UN inquiry into the affairs, which quickly gained over 100,000 signatures. Such a social media firestorm demonstrated the outstanding rapidity with which information can be spread via the internet, and the global outrage it ignited illustrated that humanity’s moral compass remains intact.
However, social media is a useful tool not only in cases of mass abuse, but also in those of individual injustices. In 2016, the sexual assault case of Emily Doe made waves when it was shared by Buzzfeed, receiving eleven million views in four days and instigating a conversation about the severe lack of legal support given to sexual assault survivors. Her statement was communicated across a plethora of social media platforms and resonated with many: her message that “sexual assault is not an accident” created a viral shockwave, whilst rallying support for her legal case. Her bravery in sharing her story, and the use of online media platforms to do so, forced America (and, indeed, the rest of the world) into a conversation that they had long shied away from. This spurred on the famous #metoo movement, which was instrumental in allowing women to find a voice: the empowerment achieved by the ability to share our experiences, from everyday misogyny to long-term abuse, created a sense of unity amongst women that had barely been seen before. With 20% of women experiencing some form of sexual assault from the age of 16, it is evident that there is much to be done in the way of tackling abuse – but at least we are taking a step in the right direction. Arguably, when enough voices are projected via social media, the shout can no longer be ignored.
As the world around us becomes increasingly confused, perhaps there is hope in the independence gained from having a forum to make our voices heard. As said by Plato, ‘to prefer evil to good is not in human nature’, so it should be reasoned that whilst governments may turn a blind eye, it is the nature of the public to fight the just cause. As we have seen, this feat is made much easier with the help of social media. With our current laws on censorship, online platforms remain largely unbiased; thus, with anyone and everyone possessing the ability to share a post, information can be transferred from the public to the leaders and back again within a matter of minutes. For all its flaws, we must at least credit social media with this: in ever-bleaker times, it gives a voice to the voiceless.