Intertwined: Social Media, Journalism and Activism

By Melissa Wells

Surging activism in America has garnered international attention and support through the influence of journalism and social media. For Professor Meredith O’Brien, the evolution of social media and the unprecedented volume of breaking news changed how she mentors the next generation of journalists, who also happen to be the next generation of activists.

Whether it is the #MarchForOurLives movement taking charge of the gun control debate, #BlackLivesMatter fighting systematic oppression of the black community or sexual abuse exposed through the #MeToo movement – the conjunction of journalism and social media is prevalent to the growth, success and momentum all three movements sustain and use to their advantage. Thus, it is important to evaluate the dynamics between journalism and social media that are so influential today.

For journalism, social media is very much so a double-edged sword. As a professor at Framingham State University at the time, O’Brien created the course, “Writing for Online and Social Media,” for the English Department there with a focus on the use of social media in daily journalism. Aside from acclimating students to the world of blogs and Twitter – as well as how people use both professionally – O’Brien felt compelled to intertwine media and news literacy into the curriculum. In her opinion, social media has been a hub for the proliferation of misinformation against journalism.

It is no secret that media criticism has been particularly sharp recently. “Fake news” may not be new in the journalism trade, but the unprecedented rate in which it is circulating leaves this journalism educator discouraged and fearful of the impact it has on the institution of the press:

“The compromising of people’s trust in the media has been substantially, not destroyed, but affected by the news that comes from Russian bots and people trying to use social media to manipulate people’s viewpoints.

People are being really, really clever about how to dress up propaganda to make it look like media but what’s worse – people are falling for it.” 

Another disservice social media does to journalism is in allowing for propaganda to dress itself up as the very journalists it discredits. In an article for The Poynter Institute two weeks after the Parkland shooting, O’Brien pondered: “How can I teach students how to maintain their credibility?” She still struggles with this question as she tackles the both the overwhelming amount of news and “fake news” her and her students examine each week.

This new generation of journalists must adapt to a new section of curriculum their own professors struggle with themselves: how to confront forces that try to “sully the very notion that journalism is truth-telling. . . that sabotage reporters’ credibility. . .[and] is undermined by the very president who labels news narratives he dislikes as ‘fake,’ when indeed, they are verifiably true.”

Nonetheless, journalists must learn the ins and outs of how to use social media to research and reach out to people. As O’Brien stressed, because “that’s what we’re taught – go where people are. The problem is, it’s a very difficult, challenging period for people and journalists to use and trust social media.”

Despite the chaos social media can cause for journalists, it is where the people are. But not all people harness social media for negative purposes – as seen in hashtags that emerged into full-fledged social movements. It is increasingly clear that activism today is defined by the role journalism and social media play in enhancing it. Ultimately, Professor O’Brien sees both journalism and social media as positively influential outlets for activism.

“It gives voice to people who don’t have voices and where those voices can capture the world’s attention.”

During the shooting that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, high school teenagers took to social media following the tragedy, kickstarting #NeverAgain, which eventually became the March For Our Lives movement.“It’s an extremely powerful thing to be able to work in conjunction with the media while still being in control of your story – it’s a national narrative tool.”

Perhaps one of the greater achievements of modern journalism is the unmasking of rampant sexual harassment and assault in both Washington and Hollywood. In the age of fake news, #MeToo stories arose past media criticism to garner not only the attention of the world, but the credibility necessary for people within these institutions to implement change.

“I used Facebook to talk about the times I was sexually harassed…other people did the same. We weren’t naming anyone – we were just saying ‘this happened to me’. With the #MeToo movement, actresses started naming names and there was actual consequences – but stories from people like me and my minister on social media helped people understand how deep and how wide sexual harassment has been. [#MeToo] is to let you know how common this is. And people are just as stunned.”

As for Black Lives Matter, the movement similarily informs Americans of the commonality of police brutality, disproportionately so, against black people through social media. The movement stems from viral videos of unarmed black men and women dying at the hands of unwarranted police abuse. The gruesome final moments of someone’s life is available for anyone to see on social media.

“We can now can create videos, create podcasts, post photos and correspond with people on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook – it’s a huge leap in the ability to communicate that social activists of the ‘60s didn’t have. They could burn their draft cards and say ‘I’m not going to Vietnam,’ but I think journalists can actually hear the authentic voices of today’s activists in Parkland as they do with Black Lives Matter.”

Journalism, social media and activism in 2018 are intertwined, each holding the possibility of creating as much chaos for one as it enhances influence of the other. In evaluating all three, O’Brien sees that activism is enhanced by journalism and social media, but social media holds the potential to compromise journalism, an institution that must continue to be protected.

Her best advice for journalism educators of today and aspiring journalists following in their wake: “Take everything with a grain of salt because that’s where everyone is going – online.”

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