The rise of the "outrage brigade"

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Social media has has given the people power ― and the gatekeepers of the mainstream media don't like it, says Victoria Rollison.

THIS MIGHT SOUND like an overstatement, but when you think about the mobilising capacity of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and the influence this capacity has had on historic events such as Barack Obama’s 2008 US election victory and the Arab Spring, it’s clear that ‘people power’ has been given a new tool. But how do we best use this tool to make real change?

Over the last few months, social media and independent voices in the blogosphere have become a useful platform for mass activism. Whereas once Alan Jones’s comment at a Young Liberal function and Mitt Romney’s thoughts on the 47 % might have been fodder for a news article, the resulting outrage at these statements would never have been shared in quite the same way as they have thanks to the connecting of voices on social media. I think this is the biggest change we have seen in the media landscape; whereas once we might have read something in a newspaper and been individually pissed off, we can now be outraged together. Millions of us. And we can do something about it. The mainstream media haven’t come to grips with this concept yet. We no longer need corporate media to tell us what we think about incidents that are important to our political and social fabric.

If the mainstream media decides not to accurately report, or give any weight to the obvious fact of Tony Abbott’s sexism and misogyny, this fact can no longer be hidden or swept under the carpet, as it may once have been. Who cares if Michelle Grattan decides not to write about the outcomes of a particular policy, or if Peter Hartcher is obsessed with Labor leadership tensions that are completely irrelevant to our community? Who cares if Annabel Crabb wants to be a comedian rather than a political journalist? We don’t need these opinions anymore, as we have each others we can readily share. When enough like-minded opinions are shared and acted on, this becomes a movement. And this is totally outside of the mainstream media’s control.

One example of such movements was the reaction to Jill Meagher’s murder; 120,000 joined a Facebook group to help find her in the days after her disappearance and over 10,000 people mobilised to march in her memory. Then there was the Alan Jones advertiser backlash after his vile comments about the Prime Minister’s father’s death. I don’t think this social media campaign was just about the one comment ― it was a reaction to the existence of people like Alan Jones in our media who think they can be bigoted, disrespectful liars and influence others to be the same, and are paid handsomely to do so. Ironically, the people involved in this social media activism were labeled ‘cyber bullies’ by Jones, and many in the mainstream media wrote off this campaign as ‘Twitter outrage’ rather than what it really was ― a large group of people voicing our dissatisfaction and wielding our ‘people power’ to bring about change.

An example of the mainstream media’s attitude towards social media activism is displayed in this recent Tweet from Joe Hildebrand:

‘The social media outrage brigade’.

It’s so easy to downplay the power of social media activism by pretending that people on social media aren’t really people (and consumers, voters and influencers in our communities). And that somehow our reactions on social media aren’t human reactions. The more the likes of Hildebrand maintain this ridiculous attitude, the further behind they are going to fall in this new age. There is absolutely no doubt that the campaign against Alan Jones has dented his credibility. There is no doubt that his advertisers won’t be forgetting this.

It’s important to remember that our levels of outrage at certain events hasn’t changed. I would have been just as outraged as I was about Jones’s comments 15 years ago as I am today. The only difference is, today I can share my outrage and take part in a campaign to do something about it. This outcome is much more potent than a letter to the editor, an angry email to 2GB or a rant to friends about how infuriated I am.

I like to think about other times in our recent history where social media might have made a difference to the outcome of events that affected all of us. For instance, how would George W. Bush’s election victory scandal in 2000 have been affected by social media? Call me an optimist, but I think the Bush camp would have had major trouble pulling a swifty like they did, if there were literally millions of people with their fingers on a ‘share’ button during the crucial vote-counting hours. Bush’s cousin, John Ellis, was in position of incredible power when he decided to call the election result on Fox News before counting in Florida was finished. Had this influence been watered down by the voices of American voters on social media, would Al Gore have capitulated so quickly?

Even more important than the reaction to the election being called for Bush would have been the availability of more facts during that evening. For instance, while the vote was still obviously too close to call, the five major US TV news networks – CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and CNN – all incorrectly reported that the Florida polls closed at 7:00pm. They actually closed at 8:00pm. An estimated 15,000 people did not turn out to vote in the key state of Florida because they thought they’d missed their chance. Had social media been available, the voters wouldn’t have been relying on five TV stations. Could this mistake have such an influence in 2012?

We live in exciting times. We can now share facts, opinions and insights without the gatekeepers of mainstream media deciding for us what we are allowed to know. We can now share outrage and turn these shared reactions into change. This capacity is in its very early stages ― but look how it has developed in Australia in just the last two months. Imagine this time next year when we will be voting in a Federal election. How might our newfound realisation that mass media is irrelevant − and that social media activism really does work − affect the result? I can’t wait to see for myself.

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