DSMN MEDIA: The Impact of Social Media

DSMN Media colleagues Professor Janet Wilson, Professor Rajinder Dudrah and Dr David Simmons held a two-day online conference in 2022 for colleagues, researchers, academics and artists working in the creative media industries.

Conversations on screen media, the social media effect (both good and bad), race, Black British and British Asian screen media, cultural diversity, global imaginaries and diverse viewing practices in a digitised world, queering sexualities and gender, and access to creative bid funding, were topics debated by diverse panels in the roundtable discussions.

My delivery: The Impact and role of social media in relation to British Asian screen media

According to researcher and associate communications Professor Stephen D. Cooper, social media was introduced to the world as the fifth estate. By use of bloggers and underground journalism it was designed to counter mainstream media narratives. Cooper argued that the ‘blogsphere’ was readily dismissed because of its self-regulated influences, but in fact, bloggers are positioned as a fifth estate that watch and hold to account the fourth estate – our press and media.

The fives estates are set up as follows. One to three constitutes the three divisions of government that regulate us through legislation, administration and the judiciary. The fourth estate is the mainstream press and media and the fifth being the world of blogging and influencers. Social media has evidently given everyone who has access to it a new-found sense of authority and power.

In his book Watching the Watchdog: Bloggers as the Fifth Estate (2006) Cooper argues that many bloggers monitor what we consume. He successfully identifies the five estates but in that analysis does not address the troublesome nature of giving complete credence to all bloggers and influencers of our times as being ‘legitimate’.

Where the internet has been a useful and crucial tool in countering controlled mainstream media, it has also given heed to echo chambers, cultish life coach groups, problematic or self-serving influencers, self-proclaimed community speakers and misinformation.

The algorithm in itself is a bigger debate. Designed by white men in big-tech companies to help generate cryptocurrency for the social media platforms from which society is drip fed information, it serves (among many) one key purpose: growth and influence. To become successful online you need to first work with algorithms to reach audiences to help acquire a platform (often done through collaborations and paid ads or partnerships). This action generates a strong following and implements an online presence that sells you as a product to the masses or as being the ‘real deal’. Such online collaborations do not have to be authentic beyond wanting to access followers.

From point of attaining ‘follower-ship credibility’ one must present as being relatable and trustworthy (even if their content is replicated from other platforms). More responsible and morally conscious bloggers will pride their work in being a reliable source of information and learning. They will evoke debate and thought through written, oral and audio-visual conversation with some blog content lighter than others.

Documentaries on Netflix and BBC 3 talk about the serious concerns to society that being consumers of the fifth estate carries. Films like The Social Dilemma and Bad Influencer: The Great Insta Con and The Instagram Effect have extensively analysed, albeit arguably from their standing, how the fifth estate was designed and how it continues to grow and operate. The irony here is that the fifth estate is monitored by the fourth. The live unravelling of the Facebook trial where Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen tells us how Mark Zuckerberg ‘has unilateral control over 3 billion people’ is another example of the paradox of our times.

Such power, one could argue, is a wonderful thing if fairly distributed, but this is a utopian concept. The world is imbalanced which means that social media and its content and even some content creators are no exception. What happens when the power of social media lands into the hands of the self-regulated influential who have roots in other connections allowing them to shift between the fifth and fourth estates (and sometimes the third). Further debate on this is encouraged.

Navigating the blogsphere

You can either navigate this online space critically and be consciously aware, or not. As consumers of bloggers and influencers we also have a role to play in fact-checking our source of information. Do the people we follow take seriously the responsibility towards audiences and information sharing or are we enabling problematic figures because they are ‘virtually’ popular?

When I entered the ‘blogsphere’ and online writing space in 2018 I was unclear of the effect a small niche webpage could have. A page engaging in specific conversations like mine, does it really work? Unsure of the impact of blogging and sceptical of social media platforms having avoided them until that point, I found that social media proved in part to be a great professional and creative medium.

Early on, I had content taken and replicated with no reference made to my page by the same British Asian bloggers. Arguments are lazily re-produced using your voice as a catalyst for reach. Later, excerpts of my work was re-produced without reference and arguments were taken out of context by bigger and more influential pages. Learning that not all ‘desi spaces’ are here for genuine connect and that there was no concrete way to regulate or substantially prove plagiarism online; to engage with social media meant to self-regulate a platform, to understand how to communicate with impact online (for me this has to be done with awareness) but beyond that, much like anything else online, control of content is lost to platforms with larger audiences.

Private social media accounts feed into some of these issues too. It is not just public accounts who hold power and impact. We all have a moral obligation to how we utilise social media, particularly in the way people comment, share and who they support. This is why trolling and disinformation is such a significant issue today.

Pros and Cons

Social media is an important and useful place for people to connect, to meet and to come together as communities both nationally and internationally. Successful hashtags like #MeToo #TimesUp #BringBackOurGirls (from the Boko Haram kidnappings) generated global attention and change. Queer South Asian spaces didn’t exist online before in the way that they do now and the same is seen for feminist pages. During the pandemic it allowed for creative professionals to stay connected online. Without our collective platforms would we have met, connected and gone on to collaborate together?

Social media is also a competitive and potentially harmful place to exist where certain situations (online bullying and smear campaigns) are easily deployed. Furthermore, online reach is often given to those with followers opposed to those with ideas. People instinctively chase likes to generate cryptocurrency and large numbers of followings. The rights to privacy is no longer there with increased use of social media because privacy is lost in the terms and conditions of TikTok and Instagram. Once people sign up to use social media our images and words belong to the metaverse.

Subject to such pros and cons, the need for ongoing research and critical study of the online spaces occupied by the South Asian diaspora is needed but we must involve the users and consumers of these accounts and pages in those studies in academia too.

What is meant by ‘brown’ like me?

Not only is there a homogenisation of South Asian identity and feminism online there is also little room for recognition of diversity in identity and politics. Many of our parents are now on social media. They use TikTok, Instagram and WhatsApp with intergenerational conversations taking place now more than before. How Generation Z and Millennials use social media versus Generation X and Boomers is widely different and this is telling in our understandings of the same online content.

In many cases the view from the Indian subcontinent is of a typecast of the diaspora whereby desi British, Americans, Canadians, Australasians are all categorised as being of one identity – the diaspora. A diaspora ‘confused’ about their identity without delving deeper into our distinctiveness on screen beyond Pooja from the Bollywood film K3G. Various commentaries on the diaspora are presented unilaterally by people from the subcontinent and the diaspora itself and in this we become homogenised. We get caught up in the online space of ‘togetherness’ and ‘finding a space to exist’ that we almost overlook the diversity in these voices. We cannot place all South Asians under this characterisation of brown or brownness ‘like me’ which is often the narrative being pushed by influential bloggers or public-figures who talk about reclaiming ‘the Bindi’, speaking up for the culture as our representatives and more. Influential and perhaps even problematic surface level blogging and online writing is largely consumed because this notion of ‘brown like this’ means that audiences will consume any sense of ‘self’ seen online. The people behind such pages have also caught on to the fact that they need to provide additional information to audiences about certain events and happenings to ensure public credibility. Whether they properly source and interrogate the information with a willingness to authentically engage beyond online posting and follower validation however remains to be seen.

The Diaspora

In my online space I write on issues that I couldn’t when in mainstream white spaces, or because white mainstream spaces did not cover these issues, but also the same is true for mainstream Asian spaces. This was particularly true of certain experiences in broadcast journalism. When we talk about the mainstream media this also extends to the Asian media scene where gatekeepers exist here too. Equitable pay and job roles exploiting skillset for less pay and more work is a problem in mainstream media. This can be countered by creating our own social media platforms that help to self-regulate the work we do and the pay we receive. Politics from the global south also map out in the diaspora media. British Asian women battle with misogyny in relation to both white and brown men and in feminist or women spaces we are also presenting with a diversity of lived experiences, and views across ethnicity, class, caste (note the Silicon Valley case in the US), politics, access to education and opportunity and so on.

Social media helps to give people a space but it also relies heavily on institutional influences like the algorithm which is designed and controlled by white men, and on access to the fourth estate where gate keepers hold keys across the board. Are there ample studies on how this impacts feminist and/or black and brown spaces?

As a professional in the creative media industries who also operates online, I have been aggressively trolled by South Asians in the virtual world. This transferred to everyday life which has resulted in harassment calls and emails. So how radical and safe is social media? How unified are ethnically diverse communities? How easy is it for abusers to hide in plain sight? What safety measures exist? We are trolled and watched by racists, castiest, predators, misogynists and anyone with an axe to grind. In what way then is social media ‘safe enough’ and how is it responsibly regulated for Black and Asian women? Who monitors and decides on that regulation?

Types of bloggers, audiences and online users

If you fail to appease notions of ‘radical’ speaking or the more likeable and consumable desi blogger influencer narratives online, then do audiences give you true space? What impacts and influence does social media have both offline and online? People are not always who they curate themselves to be online. I have lived experiences of this when meeting influential figures offline. Performative allyship and sisterhood is cleverly disguised by opportunists or communal narcissism acting as educational activists online. Validation seeking feeds into this culture of online-offline narcissism. See Dr. Ramani’s work for more on these issues.

Social media is a complex yet integral and vital part of our evolving and creative worlds. It requires ongoing in-depth research and robust policy making to better safeguard women and creatives of colour online. The revolving questions are still here and always turning: When will that happen? How and by whom?

Featured image from depositphotos.com