Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Social Media is More than the Message

I'm having trouble understanding the interest and outrage generated by The Making of a Murderer, which is apparently something  which may be called a "docudrama," and the sympathy it has evoked for its unlikely "hero" if we may use the word, Steven Avery.

I suppose it's necessary to consider at the outset whether it is in fact a docudrama or a documentary.  A docudrama, it seems fair to say given the inclusion of "drama" in the word itself, though it relates nonfiction does so as part of a drama.  Merriam-Webster Online refers to a "docudrama" as something "dealing freely" with events, particularly those of a recent and controversial nature.  If "dealing freely" includes disregarding, and failing to mention, facts which could render a person less sympathetic, and a contention less convincing, then it would seem based on information which has been provided since the Netflix series has come out, absent from the series itself, that we are addressing a docudrama.

The failure of the makers of the docudrama to include such information in their series renders their assertions that they had no axe to grind, and didn't seek to convince anyone one way or another regarding whether justice was served, rather dubious, to say the least.  Their protestations that they left out certain evidence because they felt it was unimportant indicates that they made their own assessment of what was and was not pertinent to the determination of guilt or innocence, and sought to represent to their viewers that the evidence they included was all that was important and anything suggesting otherwise was not.  As has been noted elsewhere, this is simple manipulation of an audience.  But I don't intend to address the accuracy of the series or the motives of its makers.

What makes this bit of proselytizing remarkable is not the content of the series, but the manner in which it has been communicated, reacted to and remarked upon.  Its creators plainly desired to convince its viewers that an innocent man was framed in a most unsubtle manner and evidently have done that with considerable skill and success, despite the fact that the protagonist in this case is a not a particularly sympathetic or attractive figure.

He was unjustly convicted and incarcerated, at least for the first offence for which he was charged, that's clear.  But the same can be said, sadly, for many others.  He isn't a physically attractive or articulate person.  He isn't a member of a victimized minority, or punished because of his political or social views.  He wasn't a popular figure or a (very) public figure.  Nonetheless, he's now such a figure and, very suddenly, there are many people who not only believe him to be a victim of a corrupt system but are saying so frequently and loudly, all over the Internet.  Very oddly, it seems his attorneys at the time of his trial have become celebrities and, even more oddly, the romantic interests of some.

In the past, figures already popular or representative of certain victimized groups may have been the subject of adulation, and even treated as heroes, when unjustly accused or convicted and those who prosecuted them as villains.  In this case, however, the reaction is apparently due solely to the airing of the series itself, and the instantly expressed reaction of those who view it in media instantly and widely available to others, who then instantly express their reactions in the same media.

The reactions as expressed spread with great speed around the world and are remarked upon, but not necessarily in a thoughtful manner.  The media provides a forum for comment and response, but there need be no delay in commenting or responding nor does it appear there is any inclination to delay.  Something appears on a computer screen or smart phone or tablet and having been prompted we respond as soon as possible.  The media incite responses that are not thought out but instead reactive, motivated more by feeling than by thought, to claims which are accepted as true without qualification.  Thought takes time; we can feel, though, at the drop of a hat and feeling strongly react quickly.  What we express in the media is there forever, regardless of the quality of our expression.

What we're observing tells us that the media has a tremendous and largely uncontrolled power to influence and manipulate.  Because it has that power it's dangerous.  In the past there have been orators who were able to incite listeners to the point where they became mobs.  Since all us have access to the media the potential mob is now enormous, and its capacity for good or ill is without practical limit.  Since the media encourages thoughtless responses and reactions as it induces speedy expression its capacity for wrecking havoc is probably greater than its capacity to create any benefit.  The mob is potentially present and at the disposal of any person with access to the Internet and the various forms of social media.

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