The 2017 Scholarship Winner, Michael Battey
Michael Battey attends Stony Brook University where he is the founder and president of the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at Stony Brook University. He plans to attend New York Law School where he will study business law.
Essay Topic: How do the mainstream and social media impact the trajectory of life cycle of a given news story? For example, were the riots following Freddie Gray’s death in the custody of Baltimore police shaped by the fact that they were broadcast live across the country? What is the media’s responsibility in a situation such as that? How does the addition of amateur video from average citizens play into the equation?
The Impact of Social Media on Public Discourse and The Responsibility of The Mainstream Media
Writer: Michael Battey
The advent of near universal public access to social media and immediately shareable news has changed the structure of societal discourse. In so doing, this phenomenon has had a partially negative impact on the communicative judiciousness within the public arena. This should oblige the professional media to be forthright with empirical and factual evidence that supersedes the discursive weight of subjective narrative. Here I will use the events surrounding and death of Michael Brown, to illustrate the breakdown of honest understanding and hence the slanted discourse that arises from news stories bolstered by social media exchange.
With the demonstrable rise of news indulgence through the medium of social media, it is becoming evermore possible for citizens to wall themselves into a closed arena of discourse with other citizens. This does nothing more than confirm either implicit biases or understandings based not upon evidence, but upon the subjective narrative of others. For Instance, the riots in Ferguson over the death of Michael Brown exemplified a mass movement spurred in part by social media yet based on a consistent string of untruths and wary subjective perspectives. These false narratives were easily publicized and spread over a wide audience through the use of social media.
The “hands up don’t shoot” meme (the claim that Brown had his hands up and was surrendering at his time of death) was widely publicized as the continued justification of Michael Brown’s innocence and used as fodder as the riots ensued. However, it would later come out through forensic evidence of the shooting that Brown did not have his hands raised and that there was in fact a physical altercation and struggle between Brown and the police officer.
Additionally, the “gentle giant” narrative was able to flow vigorously on social media as it was shared. It was repeated that people acquainted with Brown referred to him as a “gentle giant”, although this description was contrary to video evidence of Brown assaulting and robbing a convenience store owner moments before his police encounter. And yet social media’s interrelation with culture and presuppositional narratives allowed this misinformation to flow unhindered by fact throughout the course of the riots and even reaching endorsement of public figures, and politicians.
The professional media’s ethical responsibility to weigh facts more heavily over memes or group feelings of justification is necessary to maintain clarity between just and unjust actions. For example, over the course of the past few years there have been cases of unarmed black citizens who were unjustly killed, such as: Walter Scott, Akai Gurley, Philando Castile, among others. Once the facts have been weighed it is intellectually dishonest to include the case of Michael Brown with those named above. To do so siphons out public trust and shrouds the legitimate issue of police brutality, bias, and deaths of innocent minorities in an opaque confusion; this will ultimately harm those who truly have had injustice befall them.
Social media’s role in projecting news content and narratives allows for true and false information to spread virally. The professional media with their advantage of research and resources should flood the market with a fact-based narrative to counter any serious and potentially subversive narrative that lies only on ethereal subjectivity. Although many people will willfully choose to insulate themselves in whatever segmented discourse they prefer, countering any unsubstantiated claims with evidence will at the least make doing so more difficult.
- Anderson, M., & Caumont, A. (2014, September 24). How social media is reshaping news. In Pewresearch.org. Retrieved April 4, 2017.
- Lotan, G., & Wertheimer, L. (2014, August 10). Social media let users stick to their preferred news slant. In NPR.org. Retrieved April 5, 2017.
- Larson, L. (2014, December 2). Four Members of Congress do ‘Hands Up’ gesture on House floor. Daily News.
- Kindy, K., & Howritz, S. (2014, October 23). Evidence supports officer’s account of shooting in Ferguson. Washington Post. Retrieved April 4, 2017.
- Yee Hee Lee, M. (2015, March 19). ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ did not happen in Ferguson. Daily News. Retrieved April 6, 2017.
- Crouch, E. (2014, August 11). Brown rembered as a gentle giant. In Facinghistory.org. Retrieved April 6, 2017.