Revolutionary Power of the Mass Media

Brogan O’Callaghan takes a look at the mass media and its impact on some of the world’s social rebellions.


The revolutionary power of the mass media is a popular and controversial subject over the last few years. It came to the forefront with events such as the Arab Spring and the London Riots. I will take a look at the background of the mass media, before going on to see how Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media influenced such political events.

Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was a French philosopher and cultural theorist. He believes that the mass media holds no revolutionary power because it is only used in a trivial way. Baudrillard states that the mass media is a one-way system (170). When it comes to television, newspapers and films, we have no choice over what content we receive. If we want to watch television, we must watch a show in the format that is presented to us. We cannot have any say in the plot or the characters etc. Baudrillard says this is just how the mass media system works. It has nothing to do with the economy, like Enzensberger believes. Baudrillard tells us that the reason why social media has so much power is because it is free. They gain their wealth through advertising.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1929-) is a German poet, author and philosopher. His view directly opposes that on Baudrillard, and declares that the mass media does have revolutionary power. By making people aware of their situations, we can create politically active citizens. This awareness will allow the population to rise up against those who have oppressed them i.e. the Capitalists (109). Surprisingly, Enzensberger was, for a very brief period, a member of the Hitler youth party. What he wishes for is for the media to become democratized and put in the hands of the people. There will never be unmanipulated media, so he wants everybody to become an equal manipulator, allowing for free opinion by the masses (104).

free media, approved formats

Even though we see sites like Facebook and Twitter as giving us a voice on the internet, is it really free speech? We must adhere to their formats, we can interact with others only in ways they allow us to and we are restricted in what we can say. Facebook explicitly says that we may not post certain content which includes “hateful, threatening or pornographic” language or images (Facebook Terms of Service, 2012).

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) is a Canadian philosopher of communication. He is the man who came up with the term ‘global village’. He predicted the world wide web in 1962 in his book Gutenberg Galaxy! McLuhan said “the medium is the message”. He declares that it is now what we say, but how we say it, what medium is available to us. We have moved from letters, to telegrams, to emails, to tweets. This shows how much our society has grown, not the fact that we like to tell people where we went for dinner, or what film we saw in the cinema. Having died in 1980, McLuhan never saw the media being used in anyway like it is today.

The media has always been a powerful political tool, used extensively by dictators or oppressive regimes. Propaganda is used to desensitize and brainwash the population to make them more malleable to govern. Hitler used propaganda to make people believe the tat the concentration Camps were nice places for the Jews. He came to power in a time of social unrest, and used the media to convince the German population that the Jews were the cause of it. It is often asked why so many people went along with Hitler’s plans, but through use of heavy media manipulation he made it easy for them to believe him.

may 1968

In May 1968 there was a large protest in France. What started out as a small student protest became a nationwide protest involving over 11,000,000 people. The media were criticized for exporting the news to the riots to every area of France (176). Baudrillard says the riots were not because of social media, they would have happened anyway, rather that social media helped to make more people aware of the situation.

The Arab Spring was a revolutionary wave of protests that began in 2010. Rulers were forced from Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. For these rebels, the internet opened a new territory for them to voice their opinions. As well as this they could easily access the views of others. In Egypt, the number of tweets rose from 2,300 to 230,000 in the week leading to President Mubarak’s resignation (Casey, 2011). In Tunisia after Ben Ali’s resignation there were about 2,200 tweets a day (Taylor, 2011). In the article “Study: Explosion in Arabic tweets since Arab Spring” Semiocast shows that Arabic tweets went from 99,000 a day in October 2010 to over 2,000,000 a day by October 2011.

The London riots happened between the 6th and 10th of August 2011. They all started with the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot by police. His family and friends staged a protest but it soon escalated. There was some copycat action in some Northern cities but it was less widespread and threatening. Overall there were 5 deaths, 3100 arrests, 3443 crimes and over £200million worth of damage.

bbm riots

Blackberry Messenger is a free, instant messaging system which allows connection between Blackberry devices. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, Blackberry Messenger is untraceable by authorities. This was favoured by top business-people who sought discretion, but not the Blackberry is more freely available.

Twitter and Facebook were used extensively during the riots, for both good and bad reasons. Thousands of people used these websites to keep up-to-date with what was happening, while others stupidly posted about their involvement in the riot. any sites and pages were soon set up against the riots. Now it is near impossible to find any pro-riot pages, but no doubt they existed at the time.

rioter map

A map of incidents can be found on The Telegraph website. It is one of many maps that shows the location, and in this case the person that was involved. On The Telegraph’s map there is an indicator for a Jason Gary White, who pleaded guilty of stealing £1,500 worth of electrical goods.

To try and put a stop to the looting and rioting, people began to use Twitter and Facebook to name and shame those who were involved. One Facebook page called ” Supporting the Met Police against the London rioters” was a general news update page. On the 9th of August, it posted a status reading “Name and shame @DeanEsnard on Twitter bragging about where it happens on Oxford Street and what he is doing! #Fail.” There were many more but have since been taken down for legal reasons.

There was a big surge in using social media to help fix the mess the London Riots caused. The page @riotscleanup gained over 70,000 followers (BBC News). People gathered in their hundreds to help out their neighbours, friends and family.

This, for me, shows the real power of the mass media: it can be used to cause a lot of trouble, but it can cause a lot more good. Revolutionary doesn’t have to mean bad things, it can also mean change for the better.

cleanup riots


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