The mass media is a powerful component for social movements. Getting good media coverage strongly affects the way different social events are identified in the public eye. The comprehensive media coverage also makes messages stronger.
The media devotes attention to, for example, a social movement because they think the event will make interesting news.
Lopes (2014, p. 3) affirms that social movements propagated by activist groups have been carried out in many different modes and at different levels in an attempt to transform societies. Scholars have regarded the emergence of social movements and its influence on the society as world-wide phenomena.
This paper examines the complex nature of the interaction between mass media and social movements or activist groups. The essay will also discuss audiences alongside the relationship between mass media and activist.
This paper proves that mass media is a crucial source for political actors and activist groups with volatile and adversarial qualities, which in turn limit their ability to secure public legitimacy (Kielbowicz & Scherer 1986; Gamson 1995, p. 85 in Baker 2007).
Rise of social movements
Loren von Stein, a German Sociologist introduced the term social movement into academic study in the 1950’s. He described the idea of launching the movement as a unitary process that is developed by working class individuals when their self-conscious awakens and they gain power (Tilly 2004 in Lopes 2014, p. 3).
However, according to some psychological research, a social movement is described as a “contagion” among irrational people who lack a clear view of their future and are unable to strategically act and organise their plans. Such people have a different and negative perspective of life.
Schwarz stated that, “participants in social movements are at least as rational as those who study them” (Schwarz, cited in Buechler 2000 in Donk, Loader, Nixon & Ruchet 2004, p. 6).
Subsequently, more descriptions of social movement have emerged over the years. Tarrow (1994, in Lopes, 2014, p. 3) defines it as the unified challenges faced by people who have the same purpose for solidarity and constant interactions with social difficulties, the elites and authorities.
It suffices to mention that a social movement can be an important mechanism for social and political change as it has the ability to change the institutionalised politics that have already occurred (McAdam 2001 in Lopes 2014, p. 3).
Additionally, these movements might arise to create a clear vision about human action, particularly the way that activist voluntarily collaborate and mobilize (Cameron 1974 in Lopes 2014, p. 3).
A social movement has also been described as an organisation, which interacted in political and cultural disagreements based on “shared collective identity” (Van Laer & Van Aelst 2010, p. 1147).
Mass media and activist groups
There have been numerous activist groups that have been formed over the centuries. However, after the introduction of mass media, such groups became viral. They are not only larger, but such groups get support from all over the world. Mass media targets the largest crowds, or the audiences, possible.
Additionally, the introduction of mass media via the internet helped make social movements global. Currently, a social movement in New York can have supporters all the way in Africa. A recent example that can be used is that of the gay rights movement.
The movement started in New York, but it attracted supporters and critics alike from all over the world due to both mass media and social media.
It is necessary to point out that traditional mass media always has an alternative angle to airing such movements. In fact, they will air the movements whenever they feel there is a good story to sell within. Drawing from the gay movement, one can easily note why mass media picked up on the story.
The first reason is that it is controversial, thus, many people will watch it. The second among many reasons is that it targeted critics, and some presidents came out boldly banning gay activists in their countries.
According to Gitlin (1980) this interplay between media and the movement is similar to the relationship between journalists and politicians in many ways. Mass media and activist groups have a mutual dependency type of relationship. In simpler terms, the two help each other grow.
Drawing again from the example of gay rights movement, one can see that the media benefited from the movement as much as the movement benefitted from the media.
The media benefitted from the movement in that many people tuned into their television and radio sets to get updates about the movement. In addition, many people took to social media platforms to discuss and follow the movement.
It is crucial to point out that this movement turned global, after many of the activists took to both the traditional and the new mass media avenues to express their interests.
On the other hand, a majority of mass media avenues wanted exclusives on the story due to the magnitude of traffic the movement attracted.
Resultantly, many people would tune to the avenues that provided the detailed stories of the movement. Thus, the mass media got traffic through the story, while the movement got supporters due to the coverage provided by the mass media.
On the contrary, Ruchet (2004) defined the nature of this relationship as an asymmetrical one. This means that one side needed the other more. Thus, social movement appears to be in a vulnerable position as it seeks media attention, most of the time, as compared to the media seeking social movements.
Mass media and the political elite
Participatory democracy states that everybody should have the right to access all the information they seek, as long as the information will enable the individuals and social groups to participate in the building of the society.
Hence, the media, in any capitalistic system, should prevent manipulating knowledge by politic elite and some powerful economic source (Doctor 1994 in Wongrujira 2008, p. 30).
Barker (2007, p. 6) argues that there are different views on the components of participatory democracy. For example, there are scholars who argue that public protest should be initiated by political elites and corporations, not individuals and civil society.
These scholars claim that protests by individual people and the civil society only benefit a small group of people, and not the whole society. The existing relationship between politics and social movement has been a source of debate over the years.
For the past several decades, social movements have had relationships with institutional, political action groups (Earl & Rohlinger 2012, p. 8).
In simpler terms, mass media, or media in general, may not be the only source with effect to mobilisation of the society, but they have significant impact on the political elite. The media literally shapes the political elites’ response to the activist groups during protests or any other activities.
Many studies have examined various types of action and noticed a, “hierarchy of political participation” (Marsh 1977, Barens & Kaase 1979, Dalton 1996 in Van Laer & Van Aelst 2010 p. 1150). The role of politics has been associated with activities, whether intensive or moderate, of activists.
Moreover, other studies claim that there are cases where social movement may be more independent of authority, especially when the events under the spotlight of mass media, in this case authority, choose to create distance and not use repression against any activities in order to prevent violence.
In reporting social movement and activism, it is clear that the political elites often ignore collective action. Collective action in this sense refers to what the group wants. For example, the gay rights movement wanted more countries and governments to secure the rights of the gay people, including the right to get married.
Political elites have been known to decipher social movements using four components. Worthiness, unity, number and commitment (WUNC) of a by social movement will not only attract political support, but it will also attract media coverage (Tilly 2006 in Vliegenthart & Walgrave 2012, p. 394).
The role of the media in social events, regardless of whether it is political, economic, or environmental, as well as the type of the media, whether old or new and the autonomies they have, can be problematic. Their description of events and factors that led to the events described can cause more chaos than good.
Additionally, their desire to impress and gain traffic and power can reduce the main goal of the activist group to seem needy and unimportant. The general interest of mass media and activism has been subject of interest for many studies as they examine social movement demonstration in press.
One study that was done to determine the relationship between the two was concentrated on a protest that was held against the Vietnam War in the United Kingdom (Halloran 1970 in Conboy & Steel 2014).
The event was held in London were the demonstrations attracted a significant number of protesters, who marched peacefully. Indeed, there was some little fracas here and there, but the entire protest was described as very peaceful.
It is interesting to note that the media only highlighted the small violent acts that took place during the protest. They paid no attention to the other seemingly peaceful walk.
The repetition of the violent scene made it appear more rogue than it really was. This misinterpretation of the political event, and the negative media coverage they gave, shows the problem between democracy and the media (Halloran 1970).
The way media treats some social movements can indicate whether the movement had some political support. Activist groups that garner more political support will most likely have their activities broadcasted all over the world.
In such instances, as mentioned, the political elites in play usually have something to gain from the movement. Additionally, many political elites would not come out openly and claim that they support an activist group.
In the same breadth, however, there are some rare cases where they have come open about their support for activist groups, and reasons behind their support.
New media and independency
The emergence of new media has reduced the impact of traditional media. Therefore, many activist groups have turned to new media to express their issues. It suffices to mention that new media has provided various global platforms, which the activist groups can use to get their messages out.
New media involves platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and even the web pages created to support activism among other things. The interesting thing about new media is that it can be linked into one mass media that targets the world.
Posts and views on social movements that are posted on Facebook can be shared to web pages and other social media platforms. Thus, the story about the movement becomes bigger.
There are studies that claim that new media has improved communication worldwide and made it easier for people to access information and engage in events with more freedom (Shriky 2011 in Lopes 2014, p. 8).
Social media has indeed become part of everyday life for the activists, citizens, governments and even NGOs as they all engage with the social media sites.
Many scholars confirm the importance of social movements to engage in social media as they will be able to mobilise millions of people in different countries to support their cause. This, in turn, makes their movement much more pronounced (Lopes 2014, p. 9).
The Egyptian revolution 2011 is a good example that shows the result of using social media effectively and freely with the availability of the resources. The new wave of media activism changed a lot of things and on the top of the list is communication structure.
It has new forms, alongside the new technology, which lower communication costs. For example, creating websites and posting all activists is cheaper compared to doing it using the traditional media. Moreover, there is less repression coming from the new media compared to the traditional media.
Furthermore, new media allows activist groups to help each other as their connection facilities are more accessible. Indeed, there are some activist groups that aim to democratizing media and new media has made this easier for them (Carroll 2006)
In conclusion, mass media and activist groups have a mutual dependency relationship. Available research shows that the relationship between mass media and social movements has been debated over decades.
Establishing a definition needs compromise, as well as a rational understanding of different things that interfere with the relationship, such as politics and corporations. The political elites are specifically prone to frustrating the relationship because many activist groups target political entities.
In addition, the relationship between media and social movements has been shaped by the emergence of new media. New media, in this sense, includes social media and blogs. These platforms allow the activist groups to reach millions of people all over the world and ask for their support.
Similarly, new media has eased the tension between social movements and politics. As mentioned, on numerous instances, political entities would try to frustrate the movements by restricting the traditional media.
Social media and new media in general have made this restriction impossible. Thus, people are not only free to join social movements, but they are also free to look for information on different activist actions.