Social Media’s Increasing Influence on Global Events
VCU Director of Special Projects
Marcus Messner, an assistant professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes that posts and links to social networking sites by protesters in the streets of Iran may, in a dramatic paradigm shift, forever change how news is gathered and disseminated.
He says the protesters’ efforts kept the world informed of unfolding events and dramatically demonstrated that mass communication — including voice, text and video — is possible through a single individual on the street with a cell phone.
“What you will see is more of a trend toward individuals being able to reach a mass audience,” Messner says. “That might seem ridiculous at first. But just think that an individual like Ashton Kutcher can gain the same audience as CNN on Twitter.”
Kutcher made social media history when he became the first person to have 1 million followers on Twitter, a fast-rising social networking service.
Twitter and Facebook, another social networking service, became the communication tools of choice during the ongoing unrest in Iran, stemming from a disputed presidential election. The protesters posted links to Twitter and photos to Facebook, and uploaded videos to YouTube, as they circumvented the Iranian government’s efforts to black out news media coverage of often violent confrontations in Tehran.
“Only a few reporters are still in Iran from the international media. So, the only access to the country and what’s going on have become Twitter and Facebook,” says Messner, who uses Twitter to discuss media issues at twitter.com/marcusmessner.
One result of that shift in news gathering from largely professional journalists to citizen journalists has been the flow of sometimes brutal and graphic videos and photos, as social networking services stream largely unfiltered images to their growing audiences.
Combine that with the spontaneity and drama created by a legion of citizen-journalists filing individual accounts as action unfolds, and you have the makings of a sea change.
Messner notes that the Huffingtonpost.com — an online media entity— used videos and other links supplied by the protesters to often outdistance the coverage of traditional news media.
The unleashing of social media for reporting breaking news also has far-reaching implications for setting the political agenda and influencing public opinion, Messner says.
For example, he says the protests in Iran might have quickly faded into the background had it not been for a steady stream of dramatic and sometimes poignant images – such as the anguished throes of a young Iranian woman dying from a gunshot wound.
Such images kept the protests atop the public agenda, and put pressure on political leaders, including President Barack Obama, to take tougher stands on the Iranian government’s harsh response to the protests, according to Messner.
“President Obama could have fallen back on ‘diplomatic speak,’ weighing his options, if these graphic images were not being transmitted from Iran on a daily basis,” Messner says.
The street images from Iran presage more and more news coverage that takes advantage of mobile technology such as cell phones.
“We can consume news at all times and we can produce news at all times. We don’t have to carry around heavy equipment to report the news.”
And that, Messner says, is yet another paradigm shift.
About Marcus Messner
Marcus Messner worked as newspaper reporter, editor and correspondent in Germany and the U.S. for 13 years. He covered a wide range of political and economic issues from the 2004 presidential election and the War in Kosovo to the decline of the American automobile industry and the economic impact of rising health care costs. He also reported on the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005. Messner’s main research focus is on the growing influence of new media formats, especially the impact of blogs and online social networks on media coverage and political discourse. His latest study explores the adoption and utilization of the microblogging service Twitter by traditional news media.
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