In summary

  • Senior lecturer in Media and Communications, Dr Diana Bossio, reflects on the year and recounts the top five social media moments of 2020

The entire world spent a lot of time inside this year due to the COVID-19 situation and it was our enforced isolation that resulted in a reliance on social media platforms to fill the collective need for social interaction. Some uses of social media have been particularly innovative – while others, more ignominious.

Here’s a selection of some of the most memorable social media moments of 2020.

The BLM hashtag

The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not new – it was first used back in 2013 by Alicia Garza in response to the acquittal of a man who killed a black teenager in California. It was Garza’s friend Patrice Cullors who responded by hashtagging the phrase and contributing to the catchcry for a movement that has exploded across the United States and the world this year.

After George Floyd was killed by police in 2020, protests broke out across the United States. Many people around the world posted the #blm or #blacklivesmatter and black squares on ‘Black out Tuesday’ in support of the movement. However, this political symbolism was criticised by activist who argued that showing solidarity on social media would be better performed by amplifying traditionally silenced voices. They also called for people who weren’t protesting not to use the hashtag as it was clogging vital information sources for activists protesting on the ground.

The explosion of TikTok

If you haven’t heard of TikTok yet, you’re probably showing your age.

TikTok is one of the world’s fastest growing social media platforms, which allows users to create and share short videos.

TikTok actually began life as, a social media start-up from China that was largely popular with tweens. When the Chinese media giant ByteDance acquired the start with a short video sharing platform called Douyin, TikTok was born with a readymade youth-based audience in both Asian and Western markets.

This year the global popularity of the platform has exploded, seemingly fuelled by long periods of isolation during COVID-19. But this popularity has also made the Chinese owned platform the target of much more critical scrutiny.

This scrutiny took a dramatic turn in August, when former US President Donald Trump complained that the platform was a national security risk and signed an executive order to ban TikTok if it did not sell its US operations in 45 days. ByteDance was forced to consider a proposal to place TikTok under oversight of American companies Oracle and Walmart, each also having a financial stake in the company. However, no deal has been finalised and the US Government has recently announced it will delay enforcement of a ban.

COVID-19 memes

From the worldwide obsession with baking sourdough, to Zoom parties, the Houseparty  app and documenting the local Spoonville, most people were spending a lot more time on their social networks.

Humour was also a global panacea during isolation and COVID-related memes proliferated on social media platforms. Victorians, who endured some of the toughest lockdown measures in Australia, were deeply appreciative of their Premier’s direction that they could finally “get on the beers”, with hundreds of ‘back on the beer’ memes created to commemorate the end of restrictions. Even the Premier himself got on board, posting an image on Twitter suggesting that he’d “go a little higher up the shelf” to celebrate.

Facebook and Twitter’s response to the US election

Unprecedented is a word that has been used a lot in 2020 and this year’s social media response to the US elections was no less worthy of the description.

As the first calls for Joe Biden’s win started to roll in, Donald Trump began to tweet that the election results were fraudulent. This was unsurprising given his false claims over the weeks prior that ballots submitted via mail were being manipulated.

Twitter almost immediately began to put labels on his posts warning “This tweet is disputed and might be misleading”. Facebook also flagged Trump posts with warnings that “Ballot counting will continue for days or weeks.”

While the labels helped Twitter and Facebook avoid being blamed for manipulation of election, we still don’t know whether they are effective at stopping the tide of misinformation online.

Most experts agree that making it physically harder to share misinformation online does have some impact, but both Facebook and Twitter are still investigating providing additional hurdles. 

The creation of Parler

Parler is a Twitter-style social media platform launched in 2018 by two politically conservative programmers in the US.

The app advertises itself as a platform for ‘true’ free speech, where users can post anything without fear of being banned or flagged, raising fears that that the app would become a hotbed for misinformation.

After the US elections, the platform gained popularity mostly among President Donald Trump's supporters and right-wing conservatives. The company reported that the app gained over 3.5 million users and spent some time at the top of Apple's App Store in the week after the election result was announced.

In Australia, the platform has gained more notoriety due to the prominent anti-Vaccine campaigner, chef Pete Evans, who announced he would quit traditional social media platforms and post on Parler to ensure his ‘free speech’ after he was criticised for posting a popular Nazi symbol.

Dr Diana Bossio is available for media comment. You can also find her on Twitter: @dianabossio

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