With heavy eyes, an unkempt beard and an aroma of Doritos, Zach Galifianakis scratched his head. The comedic icon, widely known for his role as Alan in The Hangover and as host of the popular Funny or Die series “Between Two Ferns,” looked President Obama in the eyes and apologized for canceling their meeting several times. Barack stopped him right there and replied “It’s no problem... When I heard that people actually watched this show I was actually pretty surprised.”
Boom, shots fired.
Zach trading barbs with celebrities contributes to the show’s popularity, but this particular retort from the President of the United States highlighted the increased role and influence the media has regarding contemporary issues. The President appeared on the program to plug the government’s new healthcare website, healthcare.gov. The appearance surprised many conservatives and older-generation politicians who felt that such an informal, crude setting was not the appropriate outlet for the leader of the free world to espouse important messages about his stance on political issues. Going on the show provided the quick-witted President with the opportunity he wanted to reach his audience: young people who could be some of the main beneficiaries of his program. “Between Two Ferns” has now entered into the legions of media outlets such as The Daily Show, The Huffington Post and Twitter as a means of communicating ideas instantaneously to large audiences.
Every day, progressive media outlets and social media are transforming the news that we hear about and the issues that we care about. The fundamental means of political communication and subsequently political dialogue have changed.
For example, around a week ago #BerkinElvan started trending on Twitter. Berkin Elvan was a 14-year-old Turkish boy who was accidentally shot in the head with a tear gas canister while innocuously buying bread during protests last May in Istanbul. The impact left him in a coma for six months before he ultimately passed away.
With crises and political movements all over the world from Ukraine to Venezuela, from Tibet to Ethiopia and from Mali to Syria, it is often hard to feel empathy with each new story. So a teenager died during protests? We’ve all heard that one before. After a few bombings, a few self-immolations and a few police crackdowns it can be difficult to not become cynical. Who cares about an individual tragedy? The world has a lot of problems, and systemic issues are more pressing for states, IGOs and NGOs to deal with anyway. But actually, #WhoCares.
And across the world, from thousands of people’s computers, tablets and smart phones, comes a resounding answer: We do. The collective action problem about contemporary political issues can be overcome when Turks can tangibly see their posts being retweeted. Spreading awareness can help make a lone tragedy more politically salient. The domestic outcry in Ankara and Istanbul provides another clearly visible instance of how social media assists in giving grassroots movements more influence. Protestors have been taking to the streets and expressing their discontent with the authority’s handling of the incident, and they are starting to attract the attention of the international community.
With Turkey poised to enter an eight-month election cycle, the ruling conservative Justice and Development Party is threatened by a movement which orchestrates much of its publicity through an internet website with a blue bird for a logo. The Anatolian country’s longstanding tradition of Democratic transitions should help the state avoid the strife seen several years ago in other countries in the volatile region. Even so, bottom-up demonstrations in the face of police brutality and allegations of corruption in government authority tell a story that someone savvy in current events knows is a recipe for conflict.
Social media outlets like Twitter continue to transform how people, states and media interact. The story of Berkin Elvan is the most recent tragedy that has elicited emotional responses in people both in Turkey and around the globe. Individuals are likely going to continue to feel empowered and possess greater agency in their ability to influence current events. The world is more and more a global community. Events thousands of miles away don’t have the same degree of separation that they once did. Whenever one wonders why they should care about events halfway around the world, remember that there are millions of humans out there that do. #WeCare.
Tyler Fredricks is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs every other Wednesday.