17 October 2016 | Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo
In 2013, the TV series Black Mirror released an episode (“White Bear”) depicting a dystopian world with an uncomfortable resemblance to our own. In this episode all of society watches and films one woman using several smart phones, which in turn allow her to be tracked by “hunters.” Together they form a perpetual panopticon, removing any semblance of privacy or freedom from the individual. We have had similar stories from numerous works of literature— George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind; indeed, via such narratives, we are led to believe that technological advancements are largely against our interests as private citizens. Certainly in some instances this would seem to be the case.
There is, however, something to be said for the power that technology bestows upon private individuals to resist and challenge state control. Roxane Gay notes this power in her prescient essay “When Twitter Does What Journalism Cannot” from her book Bad Feminist: “I cannot think of a significant event in recent memory I did not first learn about via Twitter […] When these major stories are breaking, there’s always a significant difference between what’s being shared via social media and what major news outlets are covering” (263). Social media empowers individuals who usually lack epistemic power, and hence suffer systemic testimonial injustice (people who are rarely listened to or considered credible by society at large: women, people of colour, trans people, etc.), to testify in meaningful ways. By posting on the internet, they can complicate and undermine state sanctioned narratives in a way that mainstream media cannot.
Consider recent events in Charlotte, North Carolina. After the shooting of (yet another) unarmed black man, the city erupted in protest. Not only have those protests been described in a prejudiced manner by the media (according to Todd Walther, spokesman for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Fraternal Order of Police “These are not protestors, these are criminals” [Dureen]), but certain events have been misreported altogether. Another man was shot during the protests, which the police, and subsequently the media, reported as a citizen-on-citizen crime, an account that served to further criminalise the protestors and justify state violence against them.
In this instance, Facebook, YouTube, and other forms of social media provided a platform for witnesses to the shooting to give their own testimony. These accounts insisted that the shooting was carried out by a police officer.
Despite these people speaking out, systemic testimonial injustice dictates that the police be believed over citizens, particularly citizens of colour, and accordingly the mainstream media initially reported the police’s version of events. Luckily, the social media testimonies undermining this narrative went viral and reached a huge audience, leading to a subsequent change in the mainstream media’s response (examples The Root and photographyisnotacrime.com).
The knowledge of technology’s potential to empower citizens is surely what informed Spain’s ironically titled “Citizen’s Security Law,” legislation passed in 2015. Following repeated footage of police brutality during anti-austerity protests, the law made it illegal to film police officers.
I do not mean to argue that technology and social media are spaces where we are invulnerable to abuses of state and corporate power; my argument is that we can also use these resources as sites of resistance. While it can often feel like every part of our lives in the contemporary world is recorded and documented (a fact that certainly removes some of the freedom enjoyed by generations before us), is there not something to be said for our access to technology if it is able to turn the panopticon back on the state?
Maria is a PhD student in English Literature, focussing on contemporary American life writing through a postmodern feminist lens. She previously studied at the University of Seville and Cornell University. Her research interests include gender, identity politics, the intersection of narrative and identity construction, and genre theory.
Article Edited by Anna McKay, Katy Hood, and Niki Holzapfel.
Dureen, Tyler. “Who Is Behind The Riots? Charlotte Police Says 70% Of Arrested Protesters Had Out Of State IDs.” Zero Hedge, 23 Sept 16. Web. Accessed 29 Sep 16.
Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2014. Print.
Panopticon Image: https://rampages.us/prntdvsualnrrtve/2015/11/18/panopticon/