This was a year when stories of violence and injustice refused to die quietly. Near-universal access to high-quality cell phone video and social media has amplified the voices of the powerless so much that the powerful lost control of the spin.
In early March, the Ukrainian region of Crimea was inundated by uniformed men without insignia. Before any “credible” Western media outlet dared to identify these men as Russian forces, some guy in his car rolled up to a Ukrainian army base, stuck his phone out of his car window, and recorded an impromptu interview with a group guarding the gate.
“What are you guarding?” he asked.
“It’s a military secret,” the soldiers replied, hiding their faces.
“Whose military secret, Ukrainian or Russian?”
“We don’t have secrets in common,” the man countered.
“Do the they feed you? Who feeds you? Ukrainians or Russians?” he continued to ask. And, “How long are you planning to stay?” Also, “What are you guarding?”
When the soldiers repeatedly told him to put away the phone, he said, “Why can’t I film? I’m in my own country. I film if I want to.”
In the days immediately following the invasion, even as Vladimir Putin was denying that these forces belonged to Russia, this video was one of many shared on social media. In multiple cities, people used Facebook to quickly organize protests against the invasion of Ukraine.
In July and August, photographs of dead and injured civilians of Gaza flooded Twitter. A link to HumanizePalestine.com, an online memorial showing the victims still alive and smiling in photos, was widely shared on Facebook, rescuing them from obscurity. No matter whose side they took, people were forced to confront the human reality of this war, like never before. Explanations about Hamas’s human shield and the resulting inevitability of these casualties fell apart in the face of an image of a group of dead siblings laid out on a single gurney, or of a man holding up a charred, armless corpse of a child, exposed spine curling out from where his or her lower body used to be. Talking on CNN, Benjamin Netanyahu frustratedly complained of Hamas using “telegenic dead Palestinians” to further its cause. Whether or not Hamas’s cause was furthered, Israel, by most accounts, suffered a massive public relations defeat.
Meanwhile, on July 17, in Staten Island, 20-year-old Ramsey Orta used his telephone to film NYPD officers suffocating Eric Garner to death. On August 9, several residents of Ferguson, Missouri recorded Michael Brown’s body lying for hours in the middle of the street in a puddle of blood after he was shot by the police. While Garner is heard in his video repeatedly gasping, “I can’t breathe,” Brown can’t speak for himself, and the commentary comes from people who recorded the video, detailing the events in voices both incredulous and heartbreakingly weary.
For most people, the video of Eric Garner’s death may be the first footage of a real-life murder they’ve ever watched. For most white people, these videos show a reality that they have thus far avoided seeing up close, and therefore, tacitly and passively sanctioned. Just as we don’t want to live in the world where our allies turn multiple children into dead bodies, we also don’t want to live in a world where our public workers murder our fellow citizens in the streets. Up until recently, we could think of people as numbers, as “others.” Now, hashtags propel their suffering into our lives, and in order not to live in a world with this suffering in it, we have to change the world. Until we do, the awful stories won’t go away.
The most interesting role social media has played this year was allowing victims of sexual abuse to tell their stories, and allowing their voices to have collective power. Unlike with war and police brutality, in the event of sexual violence there may be no eyewitnesses, and often no external wounds. The burden of standing up to an abuser is fully on the victim. The easiest shortcut to pretending that we’re not living in a world where respected men molest, rape and assault is to ignore their accusers. The victims of powerful men often choose to remain silent, fearful of being dismissed, discredited and humiliated, and the perpetrators of sexual violence remain safe in the fortresses of their victims’ silence and society’s addiction to decorum.
On February 1, the New York Times published an open letter in which Dylan Farrow told the story of her sexual abuse at the hands of her adoptive father. On February 7, Woody Allen responded, denying the accusations. When I read Dylan Farrow’s letter, I thought: “She is either telling the truth, or she is an extraordinary writer.” Statistically, the former seemed more likely than the latter. (To be fair, I thought the same thing when I read Allen’s reply.) On the New York Times’ website, both letters got thousands of comments. Many comments following Allen’s response said that since we would never know what really went on, it was unseemly to dig up the old story. But if it is at all possible that Farrow had been victimized by Allen, it seems preposterous to expect her to censor her story for the sake of seemliness or propriety. Over the years, social media and the constant dialogue it facilitates became a normal, accepted component of our culture, and our privacy threshold is lowered.
Most of us are willing to conduct our lives with a greater degree of public exposure than people did just a decade ago. This loss of privacy is mostly seen in a negative light, but as a society, we acquire openness and solidarity at the price of privacy. Perhaps it was this greater openness that gave Farrow the courage to come forward and tell her story. Had she told it a decade ago, Allen would have had more publicly audible voices on his side. Now, many of the over 3,000 commenters related their own stories of childhood sexual abuse, and women on social media explained why they believed Dylan Farrow.
Farrow’s account dragged another awful story out of obscurity: that of Bill Cosby. While we are somewhat used to having the weird, Soon-Yi-marrying Woody Allen in our world, none of us seem to be ready to live in a world where Bill Cosby has drugged and raped people. For decades, accusations against Cosby surfaced and were forgotten. Newsweek published an interview with one of Cosby’s alleged victims, but it took months for the the story of Cosby’s alleged abuses to regain its foothold in the minds of Americans. Still, it happened, and it happened on Twitter.
But not before Canadian talk show host Jian Ghomeshi was taken down too. Dismissed from his job at CBC after the number of women who told of his assaults and harassment reached a critical mass, he claimed that he was a victim of a conspiracy of disgruntled exes. It seems odd that anyone bought the disgruntled ex defense. What would be the motive for all these women to band together in this manner? But it’s not odd if you consider that no one wants to live in a world where a hip, charming talk show host goes on dates with women, then brings them home and begins beating them up, though not before making sure his teddy bear, named “Big Ears,” doesn’t witness the proceedings. But when it turned out that another woman had been tweeting about Ghomeshi’s abuses back in April, under an evocative handle @bigearsteddy, denying this story became harder.
While Ghomeshi was being investigated, Bill Cosby’s reputation was finally beginning to seriously limp. In order to shore it up, his PR team invited fans to meme him. People responded by tweeting multiple references to rapes under the hashtag #CosbyMeme, and the story that Cosby’s victims had been trying to tell for years could no longer be repressed. Cosby may never be convicted in court, and the killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner may not be punished. Yet, Cosby’s career is probably over, and protests against racist police behavior are ongoing, organized daily on Facebook. In 2014, there are fewer and fewer ways to spin our world to make it appear okay. The story of not okay will not go away, until there is a real change, and a new story.
Anya Ulinich is the author of “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel” and “Petropolis.”
Anya Ulinich is the Forward’s Contributing Art Critic.