Toward the end of August, Twitter exploded with viral posts about wildfires devastating the Amazon rainforest.
“Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” people questioned. Tweeters lamented the impact of climate change on our ecosystems and the perceived lack of media coverage surrounding such a disaster. For a few days, #PrayforAmazonas was the top-trending hashtag on Twitter.
Once the story of Amazon’s fires broke into the Twittersphere, it was unavoidable, as every major American news outlet began running story after story about the rainforest in Brazil. Finally, someone was talking about this.
But was this really the first time someone was talking about it? When we’re limited to 280 characters, misinformation proliferates, while voices with the right information are suppressed. And the impact of relying on Twitter for news is that the only audible voices are those with the most followers and retweets.
The truth is, people have been talking about deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest for months — years even.
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And yes, while the fires do have a direct impact on climate change, they were in fact not caused by climate change — they were a part of active deforestation efforts, set by farmers preparing Amazon-adjacent farmland for next year’s crops and pasture. What’s more, The New York Times found evidence that Brazil’s newly-elected far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s deforestation campaigns have emboldened farmers to burn increasingly more land.
In July, about a month before Twitter learned about the fires in the Amazon, the Times released a feature on the nation’s new president and his motions to slash protections for the rainforest. And, believe it or not, the Times was late to the game.
Even before that, news outlets and activist groups around the world had been reporting on the destruction of the Amazon. In April, Amazon Watch, an Amazon rainforest and indigenous peoples’ advocacy group, published “Complicity in Destruction: How northern consumers and financiers enable Bolsonaro’s assault on the Brazilian Amazon.”
And for months, Brazil’s indigenous women have been protesting Bolsonaro’s policy, deforestation of the land they live on and agribusiness industrialization — work that has been reported on by the BBC, DW News, Civil Eats, The Guardian and the BBC (again), just to name a few. So, yes, in fact, people have been talking about this for a while — pretty much since Bolsonaro was sworn in January 1 of this year.
There’s a conversation here about why there wasn’t even more coverage about this in American news media, or maybe about why this didn’t receive the international attention that the burning of Notre Dame did. There might also be a conversation here about the danger of social-media-generated news turning into an unproductive echo chamber. And certainly, some of that conversation falls on media organizations. But much of that conversation falls to us as media consumers.
To say that no one was talking about the destruction of the Amazon — to say that as American Twitter-users, we are the first to start talking about this — when in reality, indigenous people of Brazil and international media organizations have been yelling about it for months, is an American-centric view of news media and politics.
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It’s dilemmas like this which beg for us to take a critical look at our interactions with media and remind us to play an active role in our news consumption. We cannot wait for big headlines to simply make their way into our Twittersphere and hope that the most important stories are getting through the noise.
Developing a holistic understanding of global current events necessitates that we actively seek out a diverse array of news outlets — not just the most popular American news outlets.
According to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, social media is the number one source of news for Americans aged 18-29 — 36% said it’s how they get most of their news — and its popularity is on the rise for all age groups — 68% of adults said they get at least some of their news from social media. Print newspapers and news websites, on the other hand are on the decline for all age groups.
This is not meant to be an indictment of the use of social media as a means of information dispersal. To say Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like are shallow or short-sighted or ineffective communicators is an outdated and uncritical point of view.
This is meant to be an indictment of the way we perceive and interact with the journalism industry.
It’s journalists’ jobs to track down important stories, do the research and make the stories public. Everywhere you look, journalists are working to uplift stories that matter and hold people accountable.
Now, it’s certainly true that the industry is far from perfect. Newsrooms around the world desperately lack diversity and space for historically politically marginalized voices, and the industry is inundated with the fallacy of both sides-ism, where those who promote views which are racist, sexist and every other -ist you can think of deserve an equal seat at the table as those protesting such bigotry.
All of this is true. But it’s also true that many, many, many journalists work each day to tell better, more truthful and more important stories. They work to fix mistakes they’ve made. They issue corrections and they add information. They un-learn and they re-learn.
All of this means we must be actively engaged in this process. This process of improving the journalistic enterprise and learning more about the world around us means that we all have to participate in news media. It is journalists’ job to tell stories that matter, but their job only matters if we do our job, which is to read the stories they tell. That requires effort from us to play an active part in our roles as news consumers.
Every piece of media we consume — from news articles to broadcasts to Facebook posts — plays a role in our perceptions and redirects our national narratives, probably in more influential ways than we might like to think. As we read, listen and retweet, these ideas proliferate and change the course of history, sometimes before we even realize what’s happening.
This means we can’t be passive here. We can’t let those narratives be dictated by whichever stories happen to float onto our timelines and we can’t stop after sending one tweet about raising awareness. Instead of wondering why no one is talking about this, go deeper. The fact that you heard about it necessarily means people are talking about it. If it’s an issue that matters to you, redirect your outrage from “Why is no one talking about this?” to “Who is talking about this and how can I get involved?”
And instead of waiting until stories make their way to you, go out and find them. Read stories that seem like they might not be relevant to you — I promise, if it’s happening now, it’s relevant to you. In the era of “fake news” and the spread of misinformation, improvement of the journalism industry necessitates engagement from readers, and productive construction of narratives necessitates active effort by consumers. It requires that we put in work to build up important narratives.
If we don’t put in the work, it doesn’t matter how much work journalists do. These stories will be buried beyond saving.
And there’s simply too much at stake to let that happen.
Cait Gibbons ([email protected]) is a senior studying math and Chinese.