South Park and Black Mirror are Social Media’s Best Friends


The term ‘social media’ is about as loaded as they come. Like all powerful technologies (and Anakin Skywalker), it has the potential for both great and terrible things. There are, similarly, things to love and things to hate about ‘the media’ in general. But whilst the latter is perpetually challenged in the public sphere (indeed, there’s a near-endemic anxiety in mainstream newsrooms of the apparently paradoxical lack of their own readers’ trust) the same can’t necessarily be said of the former.

Enter Charlie Brooker, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. In a world where people give out personal information left, right and centre, casually and carelessly bemoan little things (making them big), and skim quite unfazed over the most horrendous vituperations for an average of almost two hours per day, the checks and balances which are South Park and Black Mirror are both hilarious and absolutely necessary. More than that, though: they’re actually doing social media a world of good.

Both shows might be considered studies on the power of the crowd and the individual. The current series of South Park (now its twentieth) centre-stages the abuse to which Twitter has habituated us – and subtly, but importantly, our collective reactions to it (namely the chain-reactions of animosity which allowed Kyle’s dad to troll the whole of Denmark last week). It offers people that wholesome spoon of cutting satire couched in a deeper, perhaps surprising, level of coherence with which regular viewers are pretty well-acquainted. Meanwhile, the new series of Black Mirror, launched on Netflix last week, provides a more Foucauldian take on the whole thing, with one episode, ‘Hated in the Nation’, being inspired by Brooker’s own experiences in the public glare. Without giving anything away, it outlines a typically dystopian world wherein Twitter is a vehicle of a gathering, violent storm: the ‘half-hate’ with which the episode deals comes on fast but then ‘drifts-off like the weather.’

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Together, these shows illuminate the prevalence of online abuse with a darkly comic spotlight – particularly so in Brooker’s case, whose take is made all the more cutting by its insistence on talking to the casual, laid-back, perhaps unwitting user than does South Park, which is both characteristically more conspicuous and which appears more critical of hot-headed reactions to trolls than of our supposedly less exceptional interactions online.  

But a word of warning to all you would-be watchers: take these shows with a pinch of salt. It’s important, essentially, not to malign the whole project of social media simply off the back of viewing them. Again, it can do good and bad, depending who’s holding the phone. Naturally, and absolutely for the best, it’s the negatives which are scrutinised most in active discourse. But the passive approval – and benefits this brings – of our simple everyday employment of such services is a tacit legitimisation of that which we’re checking. After all, as a means of organisation, social media is the most effective force out there. The ALS Association would have much emptier coffers without the individuals and groups which made such a boom of the ice bucket challenge. I probably wouldn’t have received the monumental total of 16 birthday messages yesterday without it (thank you again, everyone).So let's only chuck-out the bathwater here. 

That said, and to close where the title began, there’s no way to draw a single, satisfying line under ‘social media’ – it’s a site of our worst and best traits, both collectively and as individuals. It will probably remain as such for a while. But because eternal vigilance is the price of a good, healthy social media sphere (and liberty), I, for one, also watch TV.

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