When we hear the word revolution, one usually tends to think of images of rioting, unrest and utter chaos. But a revolution can also mean a break from traditional thinking; a revamp of the way we view things, accept stated norms and conduct ourselves. At this very moment, there is a national and global revolution taking place concerning a host of issues: how we gather news and information, the way we disseminate that information, rights of civilians, police (mis)conduct, freedom to assemble, the right of self-expression, the Israel-Gaza conflict, militarization of police, war and much more. And what is one main underlying thread among all of these shifts in public opinion? Young people.
Like almost all other movements and changes in history, the youth are the ones primarily pushing for reform and holding people accountable. They are connecting with one another in unprecedented ways, raising awareness, driving the conversation and making social change happen via social media. In other words, the revolution may not always be televised, but it damn sure will be tweeted.
On August 9, Twitter began buzzing with word that an unarmed Black teenager had been shot and killed by police in the town of Ferguson, Missouri. Some had witnessed the horror; others had filmed it or taken pictures of it. Soon enough, these images and first-hand accounts were being posted and shared online. While so-called 24/7 news networks were pretty much checked out for the weekend, places like Twitter literally broke news as information from Ferguson began pouring in, and then was RT, RT — and RT some more.
By Sunday, grassroots activism and citizen journalism from people like Antonio French, not only had people paying attention to developments on the ground, but they galvanized many to call out traditional media for their failure to cover the story. Slowly, some journalists and producers began tuning in because the advocacy was so brilliantly executed online. Many of the top trending hashtags on Twitter began to reflect the situation in Ferguson or were related to it in some form. And then, something truly remarkable happened: a massive social media campaign by mostly young people of color called out the press for its failure to properly depict them on a regular basis.
The hashtag #Iftheygunnedmedown took off like a firestorm and quickly became a top worldwide trend. Not a national trending topic, but a worldwide one. In essence, people would take a picture doing things like graduating college or serving in the army, or other ‘positive’ things, then juxtapose them with pictures where they were dressed in a street or thuggish manner, or doing ‘bad’ things. They would then pose questions like: #Iftheygunnedmedown which picture do you think the media would use?
Too often, many mainstream outlets act as innocent bystanders when covering a major event like the situation in Ferguson; as if they have no role to play in how societal norms and preconceived notions develop. But when major media consistently depict minority groups in a negative fashion, or don’t provide enough balance in terms of images, shouldn’t they then be called out as the smart folks behind #Iftheygunnedmedown did? When the primary portrayal of young Black men, for instance, is that of some sort of a criminal to be feared, are we really shocked to learn that they are profiled more, targeted more and arrested more by police? What’s worse, consistent negative messaging can even subliminally influence the mind of someone who would never utter a racist remark but can still subconsciously behave in a way that has dangerous or deadly consequences.
Now, for much of this summer, our collective attention was also centered on another part of the world — the Middle East, specifically the situation in Gaza. This wasn’t the first time that the Israeli military killed innocent Palestinian civilians during the process, and this wasn’t the first time that the United Nations and most of the globe condemned Israel’s harsh actions. There were no shortages of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s TV appearances on our cable shows, just like there was no shortage of various spokespeople from his administration and the military inundating our airwaves and our print outlets. Punditfact even did a study on this very topic, indicating that on a network like CNN for example, appearances by Israeli officials outnumbered Palestinian officials by more than four-to-one during the first two weeks of the crisis. So why is it that this time, during the summer of 2014, did so many young Americans blame Israel more than Hamas for the conflict?
For decades, the narrative of the Gaza-Israel crisis at home has been extremely controlled and one-sided. Before the advent of things like Twitter, viewers were subjected to a litany of appearances from the Israeli government without a way to call out the unbalanced coverage. Thanks to social media, Americans — especially young Americans — saw images of dead children, mothers and other civilians directly from reporters and human rights workers on the ground. Creating hashtags like #GazaUnderAttack, people in Gaza and around the world were able to share pictures, videos, reports and information with one another while pretty much bypassing traditional media. It’s no wonder that a Pew Research Center poll in July found that among 18-29-year-olds, 29 percent blamed Israel for the conflict, while only 21 percent blamed Hamas. More young Americans blamed Israel — let that marinate for a minute.
Whether it’s Ferguson, Gaza, or anywhere for that matter, information is emerging and spreading like never before. No longer can corporately controlled media put out skewed narratives and push agendas (which they sometimes do, i.e. the Iraq war in 2003) without being called out. Social media and places like Twitter not only allow details to reach the masses instantaneously, but they also allow the masses to hold traditional news, journalists, networks and producers accountable.
Some may argue that Twitter, Vine, Instagram and others are filled with too much noise and everyone somehow thinks that he or she is a journalist. While citizen journalism can’t replace the work of researching, fact-checking and interviewing that trained journalists do, it can highlight under-reported stories and ideas that today’s journalists too often glance over. And the interconnectivity and exchange of ideas online has created a beautiful platform for intellectual debate that a truly democratic society should welcome.
To be clear, I am in no way endorsing violence anywhere when I say the word revolution. But challenging the status quo through engagement, participation and active expression of thought is the kind of revolution I’m talking about.
As I write this piece, the protests in Ferguson continue. The people of that neighborhood, especially the youth, have long felt ignored, silenced, oppressed and disconnected. The majority of the young people there just wanted their voices heard — and now the entire nation is listening. They are still driving the conversation, and have a tremendous opportunity to push for real change. As journalists are often restricted in their movements, they are the ones sharing pictures, livestreams and reports from the ground. Many of these may never be televised on cable news, but rest assured that they will be #tweeted.