There’s an episode of the Netflix show Black Mirror called “Nosedive,” about a world where everyone can rate their interactions with everyone else on a scale of 1–5, and each person’s average rating determines their socioeconomic status. The moral of the episode (because most episodes of Black Mirror have a techno-moral at the end) was a warning against the dangers of mob mentality and groupthink on social media. It’s easy to see where they got the idea: you only need to look at the story of Justine Sacco, whose life was turned upside down over an offensive joke she wrote on Twitter, or Zoe Quinn, who’s life was torn apart over lies spread by a vengeful ex, to see that internet hatred and rumor-mongering is dangerous, and we haven’t figured out how to deal with it yet. It’s scary, but TV is obsessed with it.
When “Nosedive” was first released, it was criticized for being similar to an episode of the NBC show Community called “App Development and Condiments,” where Greendale college is used to test a social media app, called MeowMeowBeenz, that allows students to rate each other on a scale of one to five. The campus devolves into a stratified community, with “Fives” and “Fours” ruling over everyone else. As in “Nosedive,” the moral was a warning against social media groupthink. This exact point was also made in an episode of The Orville (“Majority Rule”) that takes place on a planet run by upvotes and downvotes.
An episode of Family Guy (“The D in Apartment 23”) tackled Twitter harassment by putting Brian in a similar situation to Sacco’s. Black Mirror even did a second episode in the same season as “Nosedive”about social media groupthink, called “Hated in the Nation”; instead of describing a future ruled run by five-star ratings, “Hated” depicted an army of robot bees that assassinated people targeted by an internet hashtag.
Positive portrayals of social media, on the other hand, are few and far between. Probably the most high profile is Ready Player One, a Steven Spielberg–directed adventure about a video game called The Oasis that is integrated into the world to a degree Facebook can only dream of. The heroes of the story save the game from corporate greed, but the game itself hasn’t had any positive impact on the world. This came out just two months after another Steven Spielberg movie, the critically acclaimed The Post, about how traditional media exposed official lies about the Vietnam War.
The difference in how Hollywood chose to tackle different generations of media is illuminating: Newspapers warrant a serious, even ponderous drama, while the internet is all about games and ‘80s references. Escapism. Kid stuff that people shouldn’t overuse, or even take too seriously—after all, one of the themes of Ready Player One is that too much media derails your real life (and, arguably, contributes to social collapse), and in the end, the heroes decide to limit how much time people can spend in The Oasis by shutting it down two days a week. Thematically, this is almost identical to The Social Network (a movie that is more about the business side of social media than its impact on society): The creators of The Oasis and Facebook are both responsible for connecting people around the world, but are incapable of connecting with other human beings.
Again, the point the movies are making is a good one. Spending your life in an online fantasy word is pretty obviously unhealthy, and social media’s popularity can be very disquieting. Small businesses survive at the mercy of Yelp (at least according to the “You’re Not Yelping” episode of South Park), and passengers of Uber and Lyft have their reputations, and future rides, dictated by the whims of strangers. It’s a massive and abrupt change in how we live our lives, so it makes perfect sense to have a defensive, even frightened, reaction to it. These are for-profit organizations, after all, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal (and just general common sense) shows that the well-being of their users are not these companies’ bottom line. This is less about what movies are saying, and more about what they aren’t — focusing on these petty inconveniences and corporate greed misses the big picture. And the truth about how social media is changing the world is a lot more interesting.
Even if you limit yourself to personal stories on a similar scale to Quinn’s or Sacco’s, it’s not at all hard to find incredible stories where social media played a positive roll. Many survivors of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, used social media to evade the shooter and seek safety. Hurricane Harvey survivors also used social media to coordinate rescues. In at least one notable case, Twitter and Facebook are being used to connect drug addicts with treatment centers in Gloucester, Massachusetts. And there’s no shortage of people who, in the absence of universal healthcare, have had surgery or other life-saving treatment provided through crowdfunding. Social media is so integrated into so many lives that at this point, it’s impossible to measure all the personal lives that have been saved or changed for the better. And even if we could, it would still be nothing compared to its real impact.
In 1965, Martin Luther King described the Civil Rights movement’s media strategy: “We will no longer let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners. We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.” In the age of #BlackLivesMatter, the camera that records the atrocity and the television that shares it with the world are the same device, and it fits in our pocket, allowing modern civil rights activists to give their cause a visibility never before achieved by a protest through the utilization of social media. Adding a hashtag to “Me Too” allowed a decade-old movement to achieve unprecedented levels of visibility, support and impact. And the same kids who were mocked for using Snapchat to escape the shooter in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018, have used their digital expertise to help create the most powerful gun-control movement in living memory, also known as the #MarchForOurLives.
Where one video of police brutality, one recording of abuse of power in the workplace, or one picture of a high school student with a weapon appearing in mass media used to send the nation reeling, we’re now exposed to dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of those every day. Older generations feared that people would be desensitized, but the opposite is true. Millennials and Generation Z have harnessed their understanding of this super-mass-media to make these plights impossible to ignore and force the change they need. Instead of being desensitized, they’ve focused their energy on encouraging empathy.
Emma González and other Parkland survivors have been accused of being “crisis actors” or, at very least, tools of partisan forces beyond their comprehension, but that description belies everything about their media presence. Minds raised on old media could never have conceived of González’s minutes of silence, and how this wordless statement was simultaneously boldly human, inherently shareable and lively bait for the modern “hot take.” That was no mere attempt to manipulate or deceive, but an honest expression of emotion born with an intuitive understanding of how information is absorbed in internet spaces. Those kids aren’t at the mercy of the media; the truth is really quite the other way around.
So it’s no wonder movies and TV are reacting defensively: In the spaces used for the promotion of their stories, they can no longer compete with reality. But more importantly, their very existence is dependent on the same power structures that social media will inevitably dismantle. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms may come and go, but the world of instant sharing and stories going viral will be the new normal for the foreseeable future.
Social media has destabilized centuries-old power structures and amplified voices that have historically been ignored, silenced, trampled and punished. It is also vulnerable to the worst impulses of mob-mentality, petty grudges, rumor-mongering and cruelty. It is the planet’s most powerful tool in the fight for social progress, and an easy way to indulge in mindless bullying. Both are true, but when old media focuses on the dangers, it just reveals how badly they want to preserve the status quo.