How does social media impact the representations of global poverty?

Introduction

New Media and ICT have become part of most realms of human life and society in general. Information sharing and communication is easier than ever before, if you by easier mean less cumbersome and time consuming. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it has become easier to understand one another, or that it brings us closer together as humans. Social media is one example of (relatively) recent technology that simplifies both information sharing and communication, and something that has become an integral part of everyday life for many people around the world.

Social media has, according to Miller (2016:7) become such a big part of our lives that you can’t see interactions on social media as separate from other parts of life, in the same way you wouldn’t regard conversations taking place on the phone separate from ‘real life’.

In this post, I will examine some of the aspects of the potential impacts of social media on humanitarian- and development communication, specifically the representations of global poverty. One question I pose is: How can social media change the representations of global poverty? I will briefly cover the concept and problems of representations of global poverty, everyday and digital humanitarianism, as well as the possibilities of social media as a tool for diversifying and challenging these representations.

 

Visual representations of global poverty

Representations of global poverty were previously mainly created and spread by professionals in development, communication and media. Journalists have reported from ‘the field’, and organisations have used communication as a tool for fundraising, advocacy and awareness. With New media and ICT comes new possibilities of other people and entities to enter this realm. Social media has provided a platform for anyone who has access to the right technology to create and spread content and thus reinforce or challenge these representations. This group includes volunteers and tourists who find themselves in a development context. It has also provided new opportunities for development professionals and organisations to create awareness and engagement in different ways. In addition, social media provides a platform for people and organisations who want to challenge mainstream ideas and concepts in different ways.

Some of the problems that have been identified with traditional development communication are the stereotypical portraits of suffering, poverty and need. These stereotypes have perpetuated ideas of the distant other, the divide between the victim and the saviour, the spectacle of suffering, and the reinforcing of inequalities (Chouliaraki 2013, Dogma 2012, among others). These issues, albeit challenged and discussed, are still present. INGOs need money to conduct their work, money that from a large part comes from the public, and so development communication can become traditional advertising. Research on the effectiveness of INGOs’ communication largely concludes that a strong emotional response leads to a willingness to donate. Feelings of sadness, combined with empathy for the person in the content, has been shown to be efficient in terms of the public being willing to donate (Warrington & Crombie, 2017). Scott (2014) identified three types of representations for strategic development communication: “shock effect” appeals, deliberate positivism, and post-humanitarian communication. Although calling for different emotional response, they are all appealing for emotions. This means that even though a lot of debate and criticism has surrounded these kind of representations, and even if the stereotypical images of poverty are against a certain organisation’s values, it is reasonable to assume that as long as it makes the public open their wallets, they will be around.

Social media has disrupted the sender-receiver model of mass communication. Everyone is potentially a sender, a receiver, and co-creator. We can share, comment, respond, react on the social media platforms, something that to a large extent has not been possible with the traditional ways of mass communication. It has naturally also provided a new platform for INGOs, who can adjust their messaging to the platforms, and demand direct actions from social media users. In the coming paragraphs I will discuss a few of the aspects of this.

 

Humanitarianism and social media

Social media has enabled INGOs to expand their reach, and to plead for direct actions from the public. This can include asking for donations in a traditional manner, but that is only a small part of the possible actions to take. Campaigns can be created around sharing, shopping, joining video games, virtual signing of petitions, to name a few. An umbrella term for these kinds of actions is everyday humanitarianism, including everything that can contribute to expanding the reach and impact, making a difference in a way that traditional, ‘on the ground’ humanitarianism does not (Richey, 2018:3). This creates an opportunity for people to care about, and act upon, distant suffering from the comfort of their homes (Richey, 2018:13).

This intersection between social media and humanitarianism, whereby actions of solidarity takes place in the digital sphere falls under the concept of digital humanitarianism. Just like everyday humanitarianism, digital humanitarianism presents new opportunities for a wider engagement, but it also reinforces the divide between those doing work on the ground and those who engage in the digital and/or everyday humanitarianism, far from the realities in ‘the field’. This means that extraordinary situations or crisis are transformed into something that is easily accessible, understood and sharable which also increases the distance between the ‘savior’ and the ‘saved’ (Shringarpure 2020:2). These acts of solidarity by individuals are based in a history of North–South relations and contribute to the inequalities of the people who help and those who need it (Richey, 2018:15).

Social media has changed acts of humanitarianism. It is easier than ever to feel like you are doing something, but the question is what it leads to both in terms of sustainable change for the distant other, and if it can reinforce global inequalities in terms of power and representation.

 

Self-representation

What we do on Social media is part of our personal brand. Self-representation on social media is both a narcissistic practice, but also directed towards a specific audience (Miller at al 2016).  Acts of do-gooding that you can share with your network hence become part of the self-representation. Chouliaraki (2016:4) calls this a fundamental shift in the public consciousness, which ‘explicitly situates the pleasures of the self at the heart of moral action’ which she also refers to as ‘public self- expression’.

According to Richey (2028:12), experiences of the ethical self who must continue to follow, engage, and comment on the lives in the campaign and the Southern recipient reinforces an individualization of humanitarianism, not an expansion of its representations or the scope of global caring. The question is, would people still engage in acts of solidarity if they could not share it on social media, and if the answer is no, what does that mean? According to Chouliaraki, we live in an age of post-humanitarianism, where acts of solidarity and caring are so connected to feelings of gratifications for oneself.

This would mean that the social media content is mainly concerned with the representation and enhancement of one’s self, rather than with the cause itself. The distant others become secondary in this age of self-centred post-humanitarianism. An interesting twist of this is of course that the discussions and the critique surrounding stereotypical representations of global poverty make people less willing to engage in such content. It might be because they are truly concerned with the consequences of these representations, but it might also be because people do not want the backlash it can create.

 

The opportunities

Social media, with its almost endless potential for communication and information, provides an opportunity for more diverse representations of global poverty, and for discussions around the same. With more people around the world getting access to the Internet and smartphones, these opportunities increase. But social media is nothing but the content that is created and shared there; content that is produced in a world of vast inequalities and biases. Authors such as O’Donnell and Sweetman (2018), argue that technology always mirrors the societies and communities that created it. If there was equal access to new technology, the content might be equal too but that is not the case. Access to technology, skills and connectivity are still factors to address to decrease the digital gap. This means that marginalised groups and individuals must be offered the opportunity to create content if social media is to contribute to a mote diverse digital sphere. For ICTs to be as empowering as they can be, more content also needs to challenge biases and offer an alternative perspective (Sweetman and O’Donnel 221).

Social media and other parts of the digital sphere do provide an opportunity for pushback, and many, especially people from the African continent, to provide a counter-narrative, use it. Often with humour as a weapon, they shine light on the misrepresentation, stereotypes and prejudice that surround low-income countries and the people who live there. By dismantling and confronting power dynamics and postcolonial representations, they offer a strong counter narrative, countering the mainstream (Shringarpure 2018:12-13).  A lot remains to be done in terms of diversifying the representations of global poverty, but the digital sphere, including social media, has shown that discursive ruptures are possible and indeed happening (Shringarpure 2018:14).

 

Conclusion

Social media, like most other tools, platforms and technologies for communication, is neither good nor bad but rather something with risks and opportunities, depending on how it is used by us humans. On the one hand, social media can increase the inequalities that already exist:

“There is little doubt that these technologies can exhibit a tendency to fetishize conflict and violence, and reinforce savior complexes
(Shringarpure 2018: 12)

On the other hand, there is a potential of a more diverse representation:

“Communications technologies enable us to contact others, conveying information over distances and bridging gaps between people and messages (both literally and figuratively), enabling individuals to join together in groups and creating new opportunities for organisation. They offer unprecedented opportunities to groups to advance their interests and priorities”
(Sweetman and O’Donnel 226)

There is a factor of amplification in social media. Things can go viral without anyone engaging in fact checking, but things can also be questioned and challenged just as easy. We should be aware of the risks and opportunities in order to best take advantage of the potential, and avoid the risks. This is why growing number of scholars now express the desire for abandoning the ide that social media must have either a good or bad effect on inequality. Instead, they call for approaches that consider the often-contradictory range of effects and outcomes. Since social media is only a platform, which we fill with different content, the effects of are as nuanced and complex as the combination of all that content combined (Miller 2016:131).

The representations of global poverty will not change as a result of social media. But if there is a strong counter narrative, social media can help spread it. However, as most INGOs are still dependant on donations from the public, and as long the public at large responds well (in terms of willingness to donate) to representations of global poverty that creates an emotional response, it is unlikely that they will abandon the traditional representations.

For social media to realize all its opportunities, it is up to the people out there to participate in a way that is conducive to more equal and diverse content. For that to happen though, equal access to the technology and skills must be made available.

 

Personal reflections

This is my last blogpost, one that concludes my previous posts. I have been sharing thoughts on how communication can both challenge and reinforce existing power dynamics. I am passionate about communication and am aware of risks and opportunities that come with it. The ability to communicate, especially if you have an audience, is power. With this last blogpost I have tried to elaborate further on these very risks and opportunities and my wish is that individuals who have, or intend to engage in development communication have found it useful.

This blogging experience has been one of learning. Not only the technical aspects, but also in terms of widening my mind when it comes to communication for development, the different aspects of that and how connected it all is. By sharing this blog with my fellow students, I have seen how power dynamics is a part of almost everything connected to development. It is always present in different shapes.

Blogging for a non-professional audience has been inspiring, it has given me the opportunity to transform the content of academic literature into posts that anyone can find useful. It has forced me to think of the very essence of what the scholars are trying to say, which has been truly helpful.

_______________________________________________________________

Resources:
  • Chouliaraki, L. (2013). The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post Humanitarianism. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Dogra, N. (2012). Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs. I. B. Tauris, London. 
  • Miller, D., Costa, E. & Haynes, N. et al. (2016). How the world changed social. London: UCL Press.
  • O’Donnell, A. & Sweetman, C. (2018). Introduction: Gender, development and ICTs, Gender & Development, 26:2, 217-229.
  • Richey, L.-A. (2018). Conceptualizing “Everyday Humanitarianism”: Ethics, Affects, and Practices of Contemporary Global Helping, New Political Science, 40:4, 625-639.
  • Schwarz, K. & Richey, L.-A. (2019). Humanitarian humor, digilantism, and the dilemmas of representing volunteer tourism on social media. New Media & Society, 21:9, 1928-1946.
  • Scott, M. (2014). Media and Development. London: Zed Books
  • Shringarpure, B. (2020). Africa and the Digital Savior Complex. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 32:2, 178-194.
  • Warrington, S. & Crombie, J. (2017). The People in the Pictures: Vital Perspectives on Save the Children’s Image Making. Save the Children, London.

 

 

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *