Ferguson, Social Media, and Visual Culture

On August 9, 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson shot to death unarmed young black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, many have taken to the streets to protest and speak out against systemic and institutionalized racism, as displayed and enforced through law enforcement–police officers shooting and killing black men and women at alarming numbers, usually without any rationale. On November 24, 2014, prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, Missouri Robert M. McCulloh announced that the grand jury had decided not to indict Wilson for the death of Brown. Protests occurred not just in Ferguson, but also in New York City, Baltimore, Atlanta, Portland, Oakland, and many more across the country. Protests also occurred around the globe; activists in London marched and protested outside the U.S. embassy hoping to rally up and incite a response. Activists on social media not only helped organize and tweet/give live updates on what was happening at the protests, but also used to the platform as a form of activism; they began protesting, sharing content, information, news, and opinions on systemic violence and institutionalized racism in America. Both on and offline generated many forms of visual culture that have transcended barriers and borders.


Lancet speaks about how social media creates a network of news and information that doesn’t go through institutionalized entities. He frames this as the democratization of information; the narrative is now driven by the people, or people who have access to the technology to tweet, update, and take photos and videos. This has facilitated the protests, public discourse, and discussion of Ferguson, black people in America, and systemic and institutionalized entities and powers. People in Ferguson, black people in America, people undergoing similar circumstances, and people who have experiences to share now have a platform in which they can vocalize their concerns, thoughts, and stories. This platform is also situated in a global context, and can reach out to people and communities across the globe.

In August, when protesters in Ferguson took to the streets to raise awareness to police brutality and seek justice for Michael Brown, they were confronted by police officers who were violent and aggressive. The city of Ferguson had enacted a curfew, and those who were peacefully protesting were attacked solely for being there. Police had thrown tear gas at the protesters as an attempt to dissuade them and “keep them in order.” Live tweets and updates allowed people who were directly present at the protests in Ferguson to inform others who weren’t at the protest within seconds as to what was happening. Because of social media, people across the globe have access to this sort of information, and were able to include themselves and stand in solidarity with protests. For example, protesters in Palestine began giving protesters in Ferguson advice about how to overcome tear gas. They also began to stand in solidarity with Ferguson and many Palestinians held signs showing their support. In this moment, two different protests came together, and people began to draw parallels between Israeli occupation and militarization and American police militarization.

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Something quite revolutionary about social media and activism is the plurality of voices that can exist in this given sphere. Instead of news institutions being the dominant form of information, people can now shape the narrative and discourse. Perhaps stories or beliefs that are left out by news organizations can merge itself into the mainstream through social media and globalization. During Ferguson, many people used imagery to convey long rooted historical implications of violence against black people in America. Photos from protests in the 1960s were juxtaposed against photos of protests from today. By comparing these photos taken in completely different eras, people began to see how perhaps not much has changed since the Civil Rights Era, and there may be hidden systemic discrimination and racism still pervasive in America. This sort of gave activism more substance, reason, and, in a way, a more thorough examination of race and violence; it facilitated in creating a fluid and dynamic conversation about the subject matter.

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Due to globalization and social media, we become more aware of issues and opinions that have dwelled underground or have been largely ignored. It also creates an environment in which struggles can unite and people around the world can suddenly have access to things occurring in another part of the world. Ferguson and police brutality are issues that must be addressed and social media and globalization facilitate and add nuance to these conversations.


Voluntourism and the Spectacle

A while ago, I came across an article in The Onion titled “6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture.” The article “features” 22 year old Angela Fisher who had recently travelled to a rural Malawian village. She tells reporters about how her visit to this village transformed her Facebook profile picture.

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To quote Fisher directly from the article itself:

“As soon as I walked into that dusty, remote town and the smiling children started coming up to me, I just knew my Facebook profile photo would change forever,” said Fisher, noting that she realized early in her nearly weeklong visit just how narrow and unworldly her previous Facebook profile photos had been. “I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders. Honestly, I can’t even imagine going back to my old Facebook photo of my roommate and I at an outdoor concert.”

The Onion, for those of you who are unaware of the news outlet, is a satire media organization that parodies international, national, and local news. While this article is actually fake, it really made me think about voluntourism—the type of trips in which students and young adults visit developing countries to volunteer for a short period of time—and how my Facebook and Instagram feeds become cluttered with photos whenever a friend of mine partakes in such an endeavour. Many hashtags, such as #InstagrammingAfrica, are inundated with photos of young adults from Western nations, holding children from remote villages in Africa, with captions usually talking about how lucky they are to visit such a country and help, how cute the children in Africa are, or how people live so well with so little. It’s a moving experience, many people promise, and as global citizens, they feel humbled. Next year, another friend will end up going on the same trip and so on and so on. However, as endearing and moving these photos are, I’d like to argue that voluntourism, an industry in which more than 1.6 million volunteers are spending $2 billion annually, is not only a product of colonialism and narcissism, but also, in a way, acts as a spectacle.

Many voluntourism companies do very little advertising; their way of getting their word out is essentially through the volunteer tourists themselves and the photos they share with friends on the Internet. This creates a disillusioned and romanticized image of global development, and fosters the idea that “saving the world” is as easy as going on a short volunteer trip to a remote village in Africa or Asia. It also feeds into orientalist thoughts of the other, and simultaneously forges a “global citizen” brand name onto those who engage in such short trips. In other words, these photos and images that we see of our friends on volunteer trips really act as a spectacle to everyone; it masks and obscures the history, social, and political context of the people that they’re “helping” and convinces us that voluntourism is a moral and necessary endeavour to save the world. We are duped into believing that going on such trips will be a fulfilling experience for not just us, but for the people we’re helping. Many of these images reduce poverty to issues that are somewhat solvable and erase the nuance and complexity of why such problems are pervasive in third world countries. They also reduce people of these communities to the “suffering other” and obscures their identity; they essentially become props in photos. Colonialism and postcolonialism conflict, one of the main reasons why poverty and lack of resources is endemic, are never mentioned or considered. The infrastructure of the government, their methods of resource allocation, or the current healthcare system are never discussed. Because volunteers do not make a long-term impact on the community (although we are all duped in believing otherwise), it becomes easier for voluntourism companies to expand their business and profits. Volunteers pay in to expensive programs, do very little to help communities in need, the problem continues, more and more volunteers pay into these expensive programs, and voluntourism businesses gain profits by exploiting the third world. In the meantime, the actual issue is further obscured, and finding a solution to endemic poverty becomes increasingly more difficult. Images and photos play an immense role in carving the narrative of voluntourism and creates an inaccurate definition of global development and charity.

Women’s Dress and Islam: Why is the West so fascinated?

Earlier this year, Pew Research published a study about how people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public. University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research conducted a study in seven Muslim-majority countries—Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Respondents from each country were to choose between six styles of dressing, as shown below. The survey only provided respondents with images; no labels or words describing the images were presented.

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These are the results for the study, which went viral and were shared on news websites such as Buzzfeed and Foreign Policy, and social media websites such as Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and Reddit:

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The study also went on to find out about how dress styles differed amongst gender within the same country, educational status, age, and religion. The results were posted on Pew Research Center’s website a week later along with an interview from Mansoor Moaddel, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and a Research Affiliate at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center. The additional survey results and interview can be found here.

Originally, according Moaddel, the study intended to “(1) explain variation in religious fundamentalism among these seven countries; (2) determine the extent of the penetration of Western values into these countries; and (3) explain variations in attitudes among people living in these countries when it comes to issues such as gender equality, secular politics and religion” and the dressing style survey was just “part of a section of questions that asked people about their attitudes toward the social status of women in the family, politics, job market and education.” However, when media institutions ran the news about the survey, headlines and articles only focused on the dress style and in Muslim-majority countries, which sparked an both outrage and fascination about the topic. The mass hysteria surrounding what Muslim women wear illuminates several ideologies of otherization that Edward Said has detailed in Orientalism.

This survey feeds into orientalist thought by promoting the idea that Muslim women’s attire (the niqab, burqa, and hijab) is a symbol of oppression instead of a garment worn to represent religion and tradition. It reinforces the Western notion that Muslim-dominated countries are misogynistic and that dress is indicative of the repression women are subject to. Dress turns into a political identity that is removed from its context—the culture and religion of Islam as well as the history of a country and community—and is instead used to further the Western narrative that the East, the “orient,” Islam, is backwards and very much unlike us. Constructing and framing this kind of barrier between the East and the West says much more about the West than it does about the East.

The survey fails to acknowledge Muslim-dominated countries outside of the Middle East and Western parts of South Asia (which, due to their association with Islam, get categorized into the Middle East). Mansoor says it is because the study wanted to focus on areas where unveiling has been seen as controversial. However, as noted before, the survey is taken out of its historical and cultural context, which sets up a Western, distorted scenario in which the veil becomes telling of the level of oppression for all Muslim women. By not acknowledging the wide diversity of Muslims, 1.6 billion of the world’s population spread out across the globe, it frames Muslims as a homogenous glob in which toxic and potent stereotypes can be applied with even less difficulty.

The biggest irony lies in the fact that this survey attempted to measure the freedom of women in Muslim-dominated countries using dress as a sound and accurate variable. This notion precipitates from exotification of the orient, in which the orient is dehumanized. Do we, in America, use clothing as a measure of a woman’s freedom? No. In fact, if a survey such as this one was suggested or even played out, it would be seen as absurd, offensive, and in all seriousness, a case that preludes to the objectification of women and the disregard of their autonomy, freedom, and humanity.