The shooting of a 17-year-old African American boy in Florida, on the 26th of February 2012 sparked an unprecedented public reaction. Using Facebook and Twitter as primary social media platforms for this post, an analysis shall be carried out, focusing on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, the manifestation of activists on social media, the presence of media institutions and their connotations of the ‘Panopticon’, and the rise of citizen journalists. Also, in connection, highlighting the ways in which power, memory and spectacle construct imaginations and perceptions of the world. The exceptionality of the Trayvon martin shooting despite having to do with its unusual nature, also takes recourse in the impacts of social media, which has itself, redefined news coverage, production, dissemination and consumption.
The effects of the media and certainly new media technologies on discourse, culture and knowledge have been studied and critiqued by many social theorists; including Adorno (1944) McLuhan (1964) and Postman (2006), who emphasise the ways in which the media has not only overtaken critical thinking but subsequently dictated discourse. The overwhelming spectacle created by this case on social media avenues, presents a broad and critical outlook of modern society. I will discuss the various discourses produced, in relation to these. The ways in which individuals communicate in this post-modern world centred on social media, which constitute knowledge and memory, shall be looked at. Foucault’s discourses on power provide a broad perspective whilst studying and analysing the complexity of race-oriented crimes and the social mediations that come with them. Foucault in (O’Farrell 2007) defines power as a relation and not a thing. Marxist’s hegemonic approach characterises the elite overcoming the masses through production and circulation of text (Ollman nd). What we hence experience from the Trayvon martin shooting brings a big media event for the situationist who sees the spectacle, which typifies as the media, leading and influencing discourse.
In response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors came together to create the movement, ‘Black Lives Matter’ (Black Lives Matter nd). Debord (2009: 27) argues that ‘the spectacle is able to subject human beings to itself because the economy has already totally subjugated them’. This undertaking was not accepted by a number of people from the American community, and led to the formation of ‘All Lives Matter’, an arguable means of overwriting the notion that Black Lives Matter. Butler states that: ‘One reason the chant “Black Lives Matter” is so important is that it states the obvious but the obvious has not yet been historically realized (Yancy and Butler 2015)’. This movement exhibits itself as a spectacle of events in modern society, which have been prevalent overtime. Through this means, memory has been repeating itself, from the civil rights movements, to post modern activities such as Black Lives Matter. Inglis (1990: 21) states that ‘A medium is any instrument of communication; it carries or ‘mediates’ the message’. As language is very effective in the construction of communication and discourse, its use and representation within social media is equally as important, and differs from language used in mainstream media, which is often too formal. The use of the hash tag, ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ in the conveyance of a strong message, proved to be effective, as it corresponds with the very mode of communication popular on social media platforms. The interplay of language as well as other semiotic means help construct meaning (Androutsopoulos cited in Thurlow and Mroczek 2011: 279). It is then evident to argue that, the fight for equality by African Americans and activists have been perpetual. But their manner of approach, method of confrontation and medium of expression have changed overtime, with the emergence of social media. The experimentation of this extension of communication has created an avenue for self-expression and assertiveness. This was notably comprehended through the use of hash tags, as a way of voicing out opinion and participating in something seemingly exciting! Nevertheless, I would argue that online participation does not equal realistic change, as the problems still persist in the real world. On the other hand, awareness is still created, as mainstream media had denoted that this was not serious enough (Ehrlich 2013), until necessary alertness was carried out, which probed necessary action towards ensuring fair representation on the case at hand. In the past, people would have read about the Trayvon Martin shooting incidence, in Newspapers, feeling sad about the occurrence, with inadequate platforms for the expression of their feelings; but with the coming of social media, these moods can be turned into actions (Bayo-Cotter in Gray 2012).
Challenging collective memory, built up from activism by Black Lives Matter, ‘Blue Lives Matter’ kicked off on Twitter and was expressed through the use of hash tags. ‘The tag is a play on the #BlackLivesMatter trend which saw huge numbers of messages after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson last August and other Police shootings around the country (Wendling 2015)’. It is fair to state that the result of a single spectacular event has made way for the birth of new ones, which all aim to challenge ideological conceptions of race, by members of the society, who in this setting hold power.
Black Lives Matter of course existed within the fabrics of social media activism. The interactive nature of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has influenced the way in which individuals communicate. Moreover, with the effect of memory, sets of discourses have been created about society, with norms being questioned. Parkin (1993: 2) defines memory as ‘ what allows us to recall things from the past’. Transforming this notion into visual representation, social media activism is now made possible through certain features like ‘share button’ on Facebook and hash tags on Twitter. These measures have ensured that voices of individuals are represented, and certain norms around race are questioned. Social media has revolutionised communication in politics (Tenhunen and Karvelyte 2015). While looking at the Trayvon Martin shooting incidence, it is apparent to note that, the power of social media provided further publicity on this spectacle, and an efficient platform for people in power to be questioned and held to account in future.
The fact that government investigations are starting to rely on evidence created by social media goes to show how effective this platform has become in the generation of information (Murphy and Fortecilla 2013). Furthermore, celebrity involvement in social media activism has been prevalent (Ehrlich 2013), which could prove to be instrumental in inspiring more individuals to get involved in this as well. A platform such as Facebook has proved to be effective in publicity creation. This can be seen in the petition created by the parents of Trayvon Martin on ‘change.org’, which offers users the opportunity of sharing onto Facebook, detailed messages of support to friends, thereby gathering even more solidarity in support of the plea. The use of social media allows for people from all over the world to interact. This enables better communication, which brings about an enhanced understanding of foreign lifestyles. Levinson (1999: 56) underlines that; ‘As we move over to the twenty-first century, the internet increasingly voices and images into its instant, simultaneous mix’. Social media also allows for a fairer perspective and judgement on issues such as the Trayvon Martin shooting, providing less ‘West-centric’ ideas and possible solutions on the issue. With these factors in play, people can come together, and with similar targets in mind, challenge misrepresentations and injustices. Brookfield accentuates that: ‘change is regarded as the fundamental reality, forms and structures are perceived as temporary, relationships are held to involve developmental transformations, and openness is welcomed (1987: 13)’.
Carrier in Radstone (2000: 45) states that individual generations identify themselves in a different manner from previous and future ones. This has been made manifest in social media activism, as it presents itself in a different format from older forms of expression such as Social Protests (Constitutional Rights Foundation nd). This also offers the possibility of a different means of activism in future. The experience and everyday life of people have been moulded and constructed by spectacles of consumer society and media culture (Kellner 2003: 3). It is thus evident that social media has made a real impact towards the way we assimilate and construct discourse.
Social media activism promotes online discussion, which is important, as these issues will eventually be picked up by mainstream media outlets. It could also be argued that these mass media channels establish a strong presence on social media for the purpose of information extraction, which usually comes from discussions and debates carried out by individuals. It also provides a platform for individuals to construct identity, and shape themselves in it as well. This process occurs whenever people on Twitter, for example, use hash tags in identifying like – minded people, with similar interests. This fastens the network process of change, as activists with similar goals are able to identify themselves online, and collaborate as well.
Foucault would argue that, the ‘panopticon’ exists for the purpose of transforming individuals and shaping their behaviours in certain directions (Haggerty in Lyon 2006: 27). Burton (2010: 8) perceives institution as ‘questions of power, the nature of media influence, media – social relations and media as a public sphere’. I argue that media institutions take the attention of people, use it to disturb them and finally get their reaction. Identity is immersed in political motives of power and knowledge, which is implemented through discourse. The memory generated from this is then gets recycled with more responses produced. Halbwachs mentions that memories are preserved by people, reproduced and through this, a continuous relationship is built, and identities are constructed as a result (1992: 47). It could be said that social media sometimes influence the topics, which mainstream media. This is reflected in the BBC’s (nd) coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting, as most of the articles written on it already trended on social media, which would arguably have played a major role in their selection of topics to report on, as it already captured the attention of a large percentage of their audience. Mainstream media also have the power to decide how long a spectacle goes on for, as well as what they feel should be trending. Crary in McDonough (2002: 460) argues that memory formulates current perception… underpinning and enriching it… as after looking at an object and placing our focus away from what was viewed; an “after-image” [image consecutive] is obtained of it. So even after the mainstream media decides to change the spectacle, the aftermath of the memory left in the minds of social media users lead them to critique the topic further.
Debord comments that ‘the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production (2009: 25)’. In relation to this, with mainstream media playing the role of the ‘dominant mode of production, and social media being its ‘project’, I would argue that the result of this dominant mode of production is actually communication, as it is the essence of social media, as well as what it hopes to achieve. Inspired by Foucault’s philosophy which underlines discourse over logic (Gillian 1991: 35 cited in Bernauer and Rasmussen 1991: 35), I hereby argue that individuals internalise the ‘panopticon’ by watching these institutions on social media, while these institutions watch them as well, in order to find out their interests, with the aim of marketing and targeting content to audiences better. As a result of these actions, it could be argued that ‘institution’ is not watching us, but we are all watching ourselves.
With the coming of social media, influence via features provided on this platform has enabled great and powerful use of discourse created by its users. Benkler (2006: 18) emphasizes that ‘Different technologies make different kinds of human action and interaction easier or harder to perform’. The use of social media has been beneficial towards communication between one another. This proved to be effective as protests and marches were organised on Facebook and Twitter amongst other platforms. Nevertheless, although there are advantages to this, disadvantages also exist. Communication can seem harder physically, as social media has replaced the normative, which is face-to-face communication. This affects the nature of influence between individuals both online and offline. Livingstone (2009 cited in Hoskins 2011: 20) acknowledges that contemporary avenues of mediation have reconstructed influential institutions in society, and ‘mediatisation’ in itself is the act of social institutions changing their modes of interaction, due to development in media’s influence. Linking this back to influence, it could be argued that everyday actions of social media users prove to be powerful in positing change to mainstream media.
Power in unclear terms cannot be situated, or understood within the connotations of texts, but must be derived through the denotation of tactical and material association of force (Hook 2001: 15). Social media has provided a means for people to spectacularly voice out their anger and suffering. It has given power to ‘ordinary’ members of society to express themselves and question discourses of power. Foucault (1971: 83) cited in Prado 1995: 37) describes power as ‘the endlessly repeated play of dominations’. Whilst mainstream media showcases great influence in its distinct categorisation of standards, social media promotes innovation, creation and participation, as one is free to express themselves, as well as their opinions, and construct their identities as well. Debord illustrates that ‘the spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images (2009: 24)’. As a result of repeated occasions of police shooting unarmed Black men, individuals started to feel threatened by the presence of the police and have decided to document their actions, and upload them unto social media sites like Facebook and Youtube. Debord states that ‘Once society discovers that it depends on the economy, the economy in fact depends on the society (2009: 42). This is seen in this issue of filming the police, as awareness has been created about its brutality, but little has been done to tackle this. And the concerned, refusing to hold onto the memories they have encountered of this terror, have decided to go out in search of change. Additionally, citizen journalists are able to provide more genuine news content, free from the construction, which the mass media is notorious for. This could prove to be instrumental in turning the eyes of people away from the mainstream media, towards the citizen journalists of social media. Citizen journalists connote a major problem to compromised intermediaries of professional journalism (Edwards and Cromwell 2006: 195). As a result of the exchange of power from mainstream media to social, they have finally found an atmosphere where unadulterated content can be put out for the world to see, denote and construct. American authorities now have to try and contain this anarchy, using whatever necessary means, including social media. Our impressions are subject to meaning created by social life. Bits of substance are lost in this encounter (Halbwachs 1992: 49) Building up on this, it could be said that the decisions made by social media activists to showcase the spectacle of police brutality on members of the African American society, has come as a result of memory built over time, constructed by acts of terror perpetuated by the powerful, whom in this case happen to be the American police. Using Foucauldian theory, ‘discourse is a practise which cannot be reduced to a function of reference or expression… it brings its own objects into being (Visker 1995: 119)’. These sets of meaning present discourse as spectacles, and not just references. I would describe social media as the spectacular discourse for this instance, as it goes beyond its basic function of communication, to act as a tool used in confronting power.
Social media platforms provide alternative avenues for individuals on an international scale, as well as local communities to come together, create groups, network and launch intriguing means of activism, which could go a forward towards creating change in societies.
This proved to be instrumental, as social media activists carried the burden meant for mainstream media and demonstrated to the world how powerful social media can be if used rightly.
Marxist’ theory suggests that a revolution will occur (Marx 1875 cited in marxists.org). Social media is alternate sphere of self – expression, which poses a threat as; people are free to express themselves. In disagreement to Foucault’s proposition of power, which states that ‘power is not simply a property of the state (O’Farrell 2007)’. I would be argue that social media fully strips mainstream and government-owned media off its powers; thereby taking away its ability to dictate ideology, a revolution will occur whenever the mass media decides to attack, in re-attainment of its power.
It has been demonstrated throughout my analysis, that social media has revolutionised the way individuals communicate and interact. Applying several discourses within its framework, noticeable impact has been made towards awareness and activism in regards to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and the fight against injustice. Focusing on several themes within social media reaction to this problem, including the creation of a movement named ‘Black Lives Matter’, which was created as a result of this very incidence. I write on, and critique this in detail, highlighting how influential social media was in the undertaking of their movement. The presence of police brutality in the American society led to the creation of activists within social media. Looking at the way the way the media operate, as well as the formations of discourses within power, memory, spectacle and influence, all in relation to institution. The Trayvon Martin shooting presented an immense spectacle, which led to various reactions from social media.
Adorno, T., Horkheimer, M. (1944) The Culture Industry. Routledge: London.
BBC. (nd) Search Results for Trayvon Martin [online] available from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/search?q=trayvon+martin> [3rd December].
Benkler, Y. (2006) The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. London: Yale University Press.
Bernauer, J., Rasmussen, D. (1991) The Final Foucault. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Black Lives Matter. (nd) Who We Are [online] available from <blacklivesmatter.com/who-we-are> [28 November 2015].
Brookfield, S. (1987) Developing Critical Thinkers. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
Burton, G, (2010) Media and Society: Critical Perspectives. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Constitutional Rights Foundation. (nd) Social Protests [online] available from <http://www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/social-protests> [3rd December 2015].
Debord, G. (2009) Society of the Spectacle. East Sussex: Soul Bay Press Limited.
Edwards, D., Cromwell, D. Forward by Pilger, J. Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media. London: Pluto Press.
Ehrlich, B. (2013) ‘Trayvon Martin: How Social Media Became The Biggest Protest’ Celebrity [online] available from <http://www.mtv.com/news/1710582/trayvon-martin-social-media-protest/> [2nd December 2015].
Gray, M. (2012) ‘Social Media: The Muscle Behind The Trayvon Martin Movement’ Society [online] available from <http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/03/26/social-media-the-muscle-behind-the-trayvon-martin-movement/> [2nd December 2015].
Halbwachs, M. (1992) On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hoskins, A. (2011) Media, Memory, Metaphor: Remembering and the Connective Turn. London: Routledge.
Hook, D. (2001). Discourse, Knowledge, Materiality, History: Foucault and discourse analysis [online]. London: LSE Research Online. Available at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/archive/956 [4th December 2015].
Inglis, F. (1990) Media Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Kellner, D. (2003) Media Culture and the Triumph of the Spectacle. London: Routledge.
Levinson, P. (1999) Digital McLuhan. London: Routledge
Lyon, D. (2006) Theorizing Surveillance: The Panopticon and Beyond. Devon: Willian Publishing.
McDonough, T. (2002) Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents. London: The MIT Press.
McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge.
Murphy, J., Fontecilla, A. (2013) ‘Social Media Evidence in Government Investigations and Criminal Proceedings: A Frontier of New Legal Issues’ [online]
available from <http://jolt.richmond.edu/v19i3/article11.pdf> [2nd December 2015].
Ollman, B. (nd) ‘Marx’s Use of “Class’ Dialectical Marxism: The Writings of Bertell [online] available from < https://www.nyu.edu/projects/ollman/docs/class.php> [3rd December 2015].
O’Farrel, C. (2007) ‘Key Concepts’ [online] available from <http://www.michel-foucault.com/concepts/> [3rd December 2015].
Parkin, A. (1993) Memory: Phenomena, Experiment and Theory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Limited.
Postman, N. (2006) Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin.
Prado, C. Starting with Foucault: An Introduction to Genealogy. Boulder: Westview Press.
Radstone, S. (2000) Memory and Methodology. Oxford: Berg.
Tenhunen, S., Karvelyte, V. (2015) ‘The Role Played By Social Media In Political Participation And Electoral Campaigns’ [online] available from <http://epthinktank.eu/2014/02/12/the-role-played-by-social-media-in-political-participation-and-electoral-campaigns/> [4th December 2015].
Thurlow, C., Mroczek, K. (2011) Digital Discourse: Language in the New Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Visker, R. (1995) Michel Foucault: Genealogy as Critique. London: Verso.
Vladimir Lenin’s The State and Revolution (nd) ‘The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State’ [online] available from <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch05.htm>
Wendling, M. (2015) ‘Blue Lives Matter’ trends after officer’s shot’ BBC Trending [online] available from
<http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-31853299> [2nd December 2015].
Yancy, G., Butler, J. (2015) ‘What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’’ The Stone [online] available from <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/whats-wrong-with-all-lives-matter/?_r=0> [2nd December 2015].