Last month, I was witness to a highly publicized controversy. It started with an article that came up in my news feed from The Atlantic sexual rites of passage in Malawi. I was somewhat interested in the article because I have actually been to Malawi. My experience there was brief and while it was absolutely an adventure, I appreciate how insulated I was from actual Malawian society. That said, I watched my feed for reactions from people I did know- scholars who have spent their academic careers studying not only African politics, but Malawian culture and society.
A friend and kindred spirit, Kim Yi Dionne, who is a professor at Smith College rose to the occasion with a post on her blog Africa is a Country. In it, she takes the author and editor of the Atlantic piece to the proverbial woodshed over the statistics and generalizations included in the original article. The long and short of it is this: the author of the Atlantic piece, at best, misrepresented the statistics through uninspired and lazy reporting, or at worst actively and purposefully lied about statistics and data in order to have a controversial, if imperialistic viewpoint published in a well-read media outlet. What’s more, is that the Atlantic article seems to have come straight out of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex playbook, Dionne wrote,
“…The Atlantic aren’t the only ones to have picked up Grace Mwase’s story. It was also published (by different writers) in The Star (from Toronto), the Huffington Post, and in the online Malawi news agency, Nyasa Times (those versions, however, left out the “parasite-ridden lake”).
Why are we seeing this same story of this Grace Mwase across multiple outlets? Because it was an NGO set-up.
The NGO brings a girl with a sensational story, invites reporters to come and hear the story, and then these reporters who know little to nothing about the context take as truth what’s being told to them and essentially write a press release for an organization competing to win a $10,000 prize. The writer’s bonus: one more stamp in the passport, one more country she can say she’s reported from.”
What this points to is the need for academic researchers to actively engage with and produce content for social media. Nicholas Kristof of the New York times wrote about how university professors are marginalizing themselvesthis issue last month. academicsTwenty years ago, before the rise of social media, the Atlantic piece might not have even seen the light of day in a print format. Had this controversy taken place in an academic journal, the debate and discourse would have taken place in subsequent volumes and issues, with responses and critiques published months after they were written. Few would have read or participated in the debate, fewer would have cared.
In may ways the rise of social media is a good thing; the democratization and decentralization of news means that readers can seek out what they find is interesting, and are not forced to consume media that they don’t find compelling. However, the blade cuts both ways- with this decentralization and democratization, news is now being translated, critiqued, and reported on by anyone with a computer and internet connection. With so many avenues for distribution of information, it is easy for entities with vested interests to hijack the discourse around any newsworthy topic.
Elegantly, while social media allows stories like the one in the Atlantic to have legs, it also gives researchers and experts alike the tools to render them legless. This is done in blog posts and in comment sections (which are truly, the darkest, most foreboding places on the internet, where no individual or group is safe from the vitriol that seeps easily from the anonymity provided by autogenerated names like User4568). It is a battle that researchers like Dionne are fighting every day, with their keyboards and and their software programs.