The other day, while talking with a friend, I referenced how some media outlets had botched coverage of Ferguson, half expecting said friend to agree with me. Instead, he asked me what Ferguson was.
I'm used to this kind of interaction: most people I know don't spend all day on the Internet reading every newspaper and blog's version of the same story, whether it be about politics, sports, music, pop culture, activism or some combination there of. But to not be aware of one of the most important civil rights dramas to take place in the United States in the past couple of decades (and something that is being reported on daily, more than two weeks after Michael Brown was murdered,) seemed embarrassingly ignorant to me. How could you not know about the news in your own country affecting your own country?
Because we choose what we see. We curate our own newsfeed and control our own current events awareness, and it is to our detriment.
Sure, we've always been able to choose our news; from what television station we watch to which opinion columnist we go to for our favored angle, we are always choosing what to see and hear. But through sites like Facebook and Twitter, we are for the first time really able to see everyone's news sources laid out in front of us.
Yes, Facebook does ultimately decide which posts you see and which posts get seen (see the video above) -- but still, in these past few weeks, I have been surprised by the lack of voices engaging in conversations about serious situations like Ferguson and the bloody trail ISIS is leaving (James Foley's murder was particularly hard to deal with, because news outlets felt it necessary to show his gruesome execution over and over, and continue to do so.)
I see my white activist friends (myself included) posting and re-posting "12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People" or "Self-Segregation: Why It's So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson" or "I Don't Know How to Talk to White People About Ferguson." While my friends have the best of intentions, it is hard to believe they are reaching the people who could benefit from these conversations in the first place.
With Facebook, even if a story like this does show up in your newsfeed, you have the choice to scroll right by it. This is, of course, what happens, because the same ten of us end up having the same conversation we've been having since Ferguson began -- sharing facts, planning strategies on how we can be most effective in this fight for civil rights for all people and in general, getting educated in front of each other. But it is the same ten or twelve folks who continually engage. No one else.
Meanwhile, engagement photos and baby photos and gross amateur food photos are still being passed around and "liked" like wildfire. Which is perfectly okay. But sometimes I want to interrupt a thread of people talking about how much they love pizza or their favorite yoga studio and ask if they've seen Melissa Harris-Perry's "The Deaths of Black Men in America."
In person, the transition from a conversation about wedding photos to racial injustice would be much smoother, but on the Internet, it is often just a bunch of blasts of information competing for three-second attention spans.
Then the problem becomes one of angry competition and scolding -- news stories are pitted against each other for relevance, creating not a conversation at all, but a reason for people to crawl even further back into their Internet holes where their news is comfortable for them. I saw many posts complaining that Robin Williams' death was getting too much coverage in the wake of Ferguson -- but how and why are we trying to compare these things? Even weirder is the news backlash and consequent spread of misinformation, like what the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has received in the last few weeks. I witnessed very intelligent people posting misinformed memes saying the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is stupid because it is a "waste of water."
Bad news, Ice Bucket Challenge haters: You waste more water every day taking a shower than your friend did dumping cold water on his or her head. If you're angry about something, it should be the legislative cutting of funding for ALS research, not the people who have raised close to $80 million dollars for the ALS Association.
As an openly feminist person, I often receive links to stories "I might like because I'm a feminist" from my non-outwardly feminist friends. While I think it is great that they thought of me, I am less optimistic that they themselves read the piece of news they are sending my way. I am tempted to say, "well, what did you think about the surge in white, middle class American women leading the Women Against Feminism charge?" when a link is shared in my general direction, but I usually don't bother. People who don't call themselves feminists usually shut off when the word is used to their face anyway.
Just recently, Facebook decided to try out marking stories as "satire." I'm assuming this was to keep people from getting into fights with people they love, all because they didn't see that the URL of a "news" story said Click Hole somewhere in it. But like many things Facebook has implemented on its users, this just feels offensive. Why do we need daddy to tell us how and what to read and how much to take it seriously? Aren't we big enough to know this on our own?
Ultimately, to see a shift in how we get and view our news so publicly, it is up to us to change or broaden our scope. Maybe we can use Facebook to our advantage and step outside of our Internet boxes and click on a story we don't know anything about. Or maybe we could just read and watch the news and then talk to each other in person about it. In a world where we have 24-hour news coverage of things happening on the other side of the world, we should feel lucky to have access to as much news as we do.
How we choose to consume, share and create conversation around that information says a lot about who we are.
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