On 17th September 2011 people gathered in Zuccotti Park near New York City Financial District led by the Canadian anti-consumerist grassroots group Adbusters to initiate what would become internationally known as the Occupy Movement. Individuals from across the city met to protest against the gaping inequalities of free market capitalism and the injustice of the 1 percent’s monopoly over global finance.
‘It was initially slow but now something that is really growing’ said Jeremy Heimans, CEO and co-founder of Purpose, about the movement, ‘it shows the power still of media to create a platform for change.’
And indeed the mainstream media did prove imperative to the growth of Occupy, aiding the movement’s trajectory from a grassroots, activist venture to an international talking-point, inspiring millions around the world. However, Occupy would never have made the headlines which it did without the carefully crafted use of online communication: the movement did, after all, begin as a modest Facebook group.
‘Interestingly,’ remarks Craig Kanalley writing for the Huffington Post in December of 2011, ‘it was the content of social media that drew the attention of many in the mainstream media’.
This demonstrates the shift which platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have created towards both our consumption of and engagement with information: social media initiates a conversation and sets the terms of debate and content while traditional forms of press play catch-up. In an increasingly globalised world, community can be found online and succeeds in conducting mass organisation. Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org, comments that ‘the best way to get people away from their computers is through the computer; you can’t organise thousands of people in New York City without the web.’
Occupy stands as a positive, significant example of citizen journalism within the digital communications era. The use of amateur live blogging and hand held video footage creates a new medium of accessible content, it affords the opportunity to report in real-time and challenges the power dynamic traditionally geared towards mainstream media outlets. It is evidence of the ability to unite people, otherwise isolated in their frustration, in a cooperative demonstration of disapproval and highlights the value in collectivist action. Statistical analysis, public research and the ability to hold the establishment to account are attained through the opportunities afforded to citizen journalism as a result of social media.
Yet an increasing cynicism towards citizen journalism is emerging.
When, in the wake of the Paris Terrorist Attacks in November of 2015, the UK government succeeded in passing a motion to perform air-strikes over Syria, social media was ablaze with opinion. There were those protesting parliament’s decision with impassioned pleas for peace, there were those who applauded the speech of Labour MP Hilary Benn and those who, conversely, voiced disdain for the trend of expressing political opinion over Facebook. But perhaps the most striking element to online debate is the extent to which information shared is false. Opinion about air-strikes is one thing, but a wealth of tweets and statuses claiming the necessity for increased security due to terrorists feigning refugee status created a hysteria fuelled by meme culture as opposed to fact. ‘CLOSE THE BORDERS’ read the title of one image widely shared, clearly ignorant to the fact that those causing the atrocities in Paris were EU natives. The response to and engagement with information is key to citizen journalism, however, for those for whom social media is the only accessible source of information as opposed to one of many tools within a wider context, it may be easy to become ill-informed, statistically incorrect and angry at the wrong people.
There is obviously a deficit between the use of a 140 character retweet and the consumption of accurate, nuanced, complex reporting. Yet where a tweet may fail to articulate the full picture, video documentation has been essential in recent years to the rise of movements such as the Black Lives Matter campaign. Video footage can capture a moment often missed by mainstream reports and can be uploaded to the web in seconds. The use of smart phones and hand held cameras managed to capture the extend of police brutality towards African Americans and, fuelled by anger towards the killing of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, incited the riots of Ferguson and the national outcry of injustice. When Trayvon Martin’s murderer was charged and acquitted, citizen journalists untied on Twitter and Facebook to report, minute by minute, the events which took place in Ferguson. Documenting the police brutality, detailing the meeting points and strategic plans of activists and spreading the message to the global community. Police brutality towards African Americans was no new epidemic but through the Black Live Matter movement and the employment of amateur documentation and digital communications, the world was finally paying attention.
Citizen journalism challenges the monopoly over information. Where a simple trickle-down effect distinguishes reporter from consumer in the mainstream media, citizen journalism and the evolution of digital democracy forces a conversation into the news which may have been otherwise ignored. The mainstream would never have decided to report upon the inequalities fuelled by Wall Street if Occupy protesters had not forced the issue upon media platforms, air-strikes in Syria would never have been so widely contested if people had not used social media to organise protest and dissect and evaluate information and the world would have turned a blind eye to the plight of African American’s in modern day US had it not been for the use of video documentation, spread like wildfire across social media, to demonstrate the atrocities.