Development and social change embedded as a part of ordinary social media use – What is the problem?

Development and social change embedded as a part of ordinary social media use – What is the problem?

In the NMICT course, I wanted to address an important and much-discussed topic in communication for development, representations of development, but instead of analyzing its role within the field of development, to broaden my perspective on representations of development in society at large. This perspective allowed me to tie my own reflections as well as the academic literature to a ComDev perspective on social media use of the general public through empirical cases.

Societal changes of the last decades have resulted through globalization and technological advances among other things, in a ”network society ” (Castells, 2009) that is built on fluid and horizontal networks rather than communities and hierarchical structures. One implication of such changes is the increasing interconnectivity and superposition of different fields of society and areas of life. This becomes particularly evident in the context of social media, an important arena of discussion and exchange for many today. One phenomenon that points out this restructuration of societal discussions on social media is “context collapse” (boyd, 2002, 2008; Marwick & boyd, 2011), as different audiences find themselves in one place on a social media platform, and users have to adapt their behavior to this.

Context collapse ultimately displays that social media has blurred the line between public and private. For the individual using social media, it has resulted in a space that is neither one nor the other, but somewhere in the middle-ground, where each of us has to find our own “code of conduct”. This means, among other things, setting the rules for the type of content that we consume and publish on a platform. Such rules may differ largely from the ones we would set offline, where the codes of conduct are better established and clearer. On social media, on the other hand, individuals might for instance try to marry together the expression of political opinions and activism on societal issues, personal life experiences, and memories, and the consumption and sharing of entertainment content, all of which would in other circumstances not be addressed in the same space. Such new practices present challenges for representations of development, as the topic of development is blended together with a variety of contexts, which affects the way it is portrayed and perceived.

Simultaneously, social media presents one central feature that adds to the challenge of representations of development, which is the dominance of user-generated content. Web 2.0 revolves around the possibility for anyone to produce and consume content alike and to have a large influence on their network, so much that internet users are sometimes referred to, in a commercial context, as “prosumers” (Ritzger & Jurgenson, 2010). While in its early years the internet was seen as the promise of a democratic area of discussion (e.g. Rheingold, 1993), this is far from the reality today, and internet and social media can, instead of bridging inequalities, deepen them further (eg. Cinnamon, 2019; Read et al., 2016). The reasons for this are manifold, from the commercialization and platformization of the online sphere and commodification of data to the purely technological affordances of platforms.

Based on these particularities of social media as a space and the presence of development topics in it on different levels, the goal of my blogposts in this course was to present an approach to what Roberts (2019) calls “development in the digital world”: not digital tools specifically as they are used for development, but rather developed as a part of society at large in the networked, digital environment. The specific aspect of “data”, much addressed in a lot of ICT4Bad literature, also worked rather as an underlying mechanism of social media use affecting it, rather than the direct topic of discussion of my articles.

For a Western public, the topic of development is still, for many, perceived from a quite outdated lens of saviorism, aid, and objectification of beneficiaries. On social media, this is displayed through content putting a Western volunteer or other helper on a pedestal through imagery, be that by the person themselves, by others, or by an organization for promotional purposes. While the paradigm within academia has switched to participatory, emancipatory and empowering approaches as the numerous underlying (and some quite obvious) issues with previous approaches have been detected, in popular discussion, the perception of development seems to have remained in the 1980s. The Western-centric social media, with its ideals, norms and practices according to Western standards, has created such a strong shield around itself and its users, that the latter can’t even see outside it and notice the possible problematic aspects of the content they produce and consume. This creates a discrepancy between the emancipatory principles of ICT4D and the emancipatory logic it operates on, and the structure of ICT, which can work towards the opposite effect and cause more harm veiled under the illusion of neutrality (Bentley et al., 2019). This illusion of neutrality is similarly pointed out by Read and colleagues (2016) and explained through the self-reinforcing logic of technology, where one set of technologies leads to another and these processes and tools become so normalized that their functioning is not questioned, and biases consequently go easily unnoticed. To fix this, Bentley and colleagues presented three aspects of critical ICT engagements, which could be applied to development in the digital more broadly as much as ICT4D: increasing awareness of ICT on context, developing reflexive ICT practices, and increasing power and control over use of design of ICD (Bentley et al., 2019). Especially the first and second point are specifically relevant to existing social media users and their practices: individual users, but also “influencer” of all sorts, companies (especially social enterprises), and organizations must be made more aware of the problematic representations of development and presented tools to change such practices. As presented in my articles, some activists are already working towards this through for instance humoristic and satirical content such as the one of Instagram accounts like Humanitarians of Tinder or Barbie Savior, social movements or collective action including awareness content such as the one recently seen around the BLM movement, or “cancelling” internet users. These are important steps, but the fragmented aspect of social media, the short and simplified nature of messages, as well as the risk for decontextualizing content make it particularly difficult to reach a big enough audience to generate change, and to make sure the messages are well understood. Additionally, these forms of action also bear their own risks, which have to be taken into consideration to determine whether they truly result in more good than harm, such as with the much debated cancel culture. Still, the same networked structure of social media that creates challenging conditions can also facilitate the fast spread of information. If reaching the right members in the network and the right amount of momentum, content can go viral and have real results on a large scale, as long as virality doesn’t fall into the trap of “clicktivism” or “slacktivism”, which have little real impact (e.g. Poell & van Dijck, 2018). I dare to say, although the event is still too fresh to have empirical research on the topic, that while the BLM movement in 2020 also had its fair dose of clicktivism through extensive sharing of black squares and the like, the overwhelming visibility it got also has contributed to shifting many individual’s perspectives on racism, and brought people to reflect on their practices regarding this also on social media.

Representations of development and social change in contexts outside of ICT4D practices is therefore getting attention, but still remains a very normalized practice in harmful ways. In most contexts, the main challenge is that people are not necessarily aware of the impact of their messages and the narratives they share, the contexts they tie to, the harm they can cause and therefore, even if meaning well, contribute to the vicious circle of saviorism as all of this content contributes to the way the general public perceives development. The centrality of visuals on many social media platforms also affects the influence messages have, and this should be given a specific emphasis on both research and development of practical solutions to the problem. Images can be understood by larger audiences better than text (Entman, 2004), and convey stronger, immediate emotional responses (Reisberg, 2016), which is useful in relation to social media logics that push for fast responses and big quantities of content, but can be dangerous when used as a way to build compelling but simplified and degrading narratives.

Popular and professional representations of development can therefore both contribute to either reinforcing existing perceptions of development or disrupting them and contributing to forming a new paradigm. To push for a change towards the latter, it is particularly important to communicate about the backgrounds of popular representations of development to a general audience, but also to propose new ways and solutions for those engaged. These solutions should not only be related to the framing and content but also address the issues related to the ICT technologies such as the underlying technological mechanisms of social media platforms (Bentley et al., 2019). These technological grounds of ICT are very much at the root of the problem as content is partially framed to fit this context, and it is crucial to critically think about the way technology affects representations, and propose solutions of better practices. Additionally, taking into consideration all levels of digital divide (Cinnamon, 2019) and contributing to bringing these and giving voices to those not having access to the areas of discussion or not having access to central roles in networks is essential to induce sustainable change.

Overall, this course really made me reflect on the connection between academia and society, both because of its topic and the blogging format. It made me think about how to transfer the information from academic research to the general public to avoid information being isolated in the ivory tower of academia, which is crucial for research to truly contribute to society. This can nevertheless be challenging in many ways, as it can be for instance hard to find the right parallels between theory and empirical observations that keep information accurate and informative, but easily accessible and appealing to a broader public. In this exercise, I also encountered the afore criticized issue of having to simplify some of the content to make it easier to digest and more appealing to the general audience than a “dry” academic essay. The mainly textual format of blogposts was also a solution that fit the conventions of blogging and was convenient as it allows to keep the content closer to the traditional way of conveying academic literature, but this might not be the most adequate form of content to grasp the attention of those I wanted to reach. In the end, attention is what social and new media is centered on: being seen is the only way to have an impact, and the number of players competing for this attention is so big that creative solutions must be applied and best practices taken as an example from those reaching broad visibility. This is where many players, even development organizations, sometimes “stretch” or plainly give up some of their core values to stay in the race, and campaigns go completely wrong from an ethical perspective. Similarly, an image of a Western young adult holding an African child during a volunteering trip can be great to grasp attention and raise emotions, but is mildly said questionable from an angle of “doing good”. Is there a solution that allows to truly contribute to doing good, be that for individuals feeling the pressure to participate on social media or organizations promoting their work, without compromising on values but that also keeps an actor afloat in the ocean of content and users? I firmly believe that there is, and while it might not be a question of one unique miracle recipe to success, for instance targeting influential players in social networks to make them advocates for better practices can truly make a big contribution to start the cascading of information and change of practices. The issues rooted in the technological affordances of platforms on the other hand need action from governments to regulate platform companies, as well as more humane and transparent self-regulation of said companies. As in development practices in general, starting on individual cases at the grassroot level may pay-off better than the fantasy of one replicable miracle solution that fixes everything at once.



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