Find some examples of news stories where ‘citizen journalism’ has exposed or highlighted abuses of power. How do these pictures affect the story, if at all? Are these pictures objective? Can pictures ever be objective?
Some of the most compelling examples of citizen journalism exposing abuses of power have been the videos of US police officers beating and shooting black men after stopping them for minor traffic offences. Rodney King in 1991, Walter Scott in 2015 and Philando Castile in 2016 are some of the more prominent cases, and the fact that the officers involved have often been acquitted in subsequent court hearings despite the presence of such persuasive footage is a shocking illustration of the extent to which the US justice system as a whole is stacked against minorities. The credibility of these videos is often undermined in court by defence lawyers not in terms of the footage that is present, which in each case appears to be beyond doubt, but in terms of their broader context – what happened before and after the captured timeframe.
Within the past decade citizen journalism has become a core element of the news universe. Live video footage direct from the scene gives us the sense that we are seeing events through our own eyes. For major breaking news stories these citizen accounts now invariably form the basis of the early reports offered by the traditional news platforms, whose role has shifted to one of bringing together the various strands of a story (from sources which invariably include citizen journalism channels such as twitter) and providing background and analysis. In this they now vie for the public’s attention with countless independent publishers, bloggers and tweeters.
Within this framework, citizen journalism is arguably the most trusted of all forms of media at the present time, when a generalised crisis of trust and belief has spread across all forms of media, communication, expert opinion and indeed the whole apparatus of government, in what has been dubbed the emergence of a post-fact or post-truth world. Wolfgang Tillmans’ (2018) study of the post-truth world reveals some startling underpinnings to this general lack of trust and belief, amongst them the finding that people will choose to believe fake facts that are congruent with their sense of group/tribal identity over true facts that contradict the group’s shared worldview, and the “backfire effect”, a phenomenon uncovered in 2005–06 by researchers at the University of Michigan who found that directly challenging people’s false beliefs with evidence that disproves them actually increases the strength of their conviction. As documented in Adam Curtis’s 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, these phenomena have been consciously exploited by Putin and more recently the Brexit campaign and Trump.
In this post-truth environment – where conspiracy theories about the holocaust, JFK, the moon landing, 9/11 and a flat earth are widespread and believed by many – the question of objectivity in documentary photography might seem to be a moot point. But there are pointers in Tillmans (ibid) to why it’s still worth striving for truth and objectivity in a world in which moral absolutes have all but disappeared, perhaps the most important of which is the observation by cognitive psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky that the huge discrepancy between the actual numbers of people who embrace a false truth and the prevalance such people believe their worldview to have is what makes their belief resistant to change – a discrepancy of 6–8 per cent actual vs 50 per cent perceived prevalance in the example of climate change deniers in Australia.
People who embrace fake truths, Lewandowsky argues, are particularly drawn to belonging to a group, and it was a sense of social isolation and outsiderness that attracted them to fake-truth-based tribes in the first place. The chink in the armour of fake truth is the possibility that those who identify with these viewpoints will come to understand that their worldview is really only shared by a small minority. So it’s important that the truth is out there and that it is visible, that there are trusted sources that people can gather around. And ironically, it may be Trump himself, with his constant “fake news” mantra, who has done most to teach even his own voters – the least educated sector of US society (Silver, 2016) – to take nothing at face value and to question everything. Reliable sources that prove consistently trustworthy are going to be vital for the future of social cohesion, especially in a world in which 3D rendering technology can create utterly convincing footage of Barack Obama saying “Stay woke, bitches!”
References and resources
Amatulli, J. (2018) ‘Jordan Peele, Buzzfeed create fake news video to warn of “dangerous time”‘. Available at https://www.buzzfeed.com/davidmack/obama-fake-news-jordan-peele-psa-video-buzzfeed [accessed 22.04.18]
Curtis, A. (2016) HyperNormalisation. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fny99f8amM [accessed 22.04.18]
Silver, N. (2016) ‘Education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump’. Available at http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/education-not-income-predicted-who-would-vote-for-trump [accessed 22.04.18]
Tillmans, W. and Oetker, B. (2018) Jahresring 64: What Is Different? Germany: Sternberg Press.