Is social media the cure to poverty porn?

This Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Kevin Carter during the '94 Somalia famine is poverty porn, say some critics.
This Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Kevin Carter during the '94 Somalia famine is poverty porn, say some critics.
This Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Kevin Carter during the ’94 Somalia famine is poverty porn, say some critics.

New York City – Criticism of pornography centers on the morality of its depictions and the exploitation of people involved.

News reports and fundraising campaigns about poverty run into similar traps when stories strip people of their dignity and, in a similar sense, objectify them. Activists decry this as poverty porn.

Today, at the New York University Woolworth building, filmmakers, NGO staff, foundation representatives and UN agency workers came together to discuss the problem of poverty porn and the potential power of social media to prevent it. The discussion was conducted privately (in accord with so-called Chatham House rules)  in order to protect the identity of the participants and encourage a more honest conversation.

Part of the problem here is poverty porn makes money.

Marketing and communications teams for NGOs rigorously test messages to determine the best way to raise money. It’s clear that people connect more to the story of an individual, usually a child, as opposed to a family, community or group of people. Poverty porn is borne out of a well-intended attempt to raise money for poverty alleviation programs.

Some say the ends justify the means when it comes to fundraising for programs.

“The use of poverty porn is a desperate attempt by charities to stay relevant,” said one of the participants.

A part of the conversation touched on the difference between stories of people from the United States and stories from Africa. People in the United States are often seen as individuals. There were no shortage of stories following the Boston bombings as Americans grew familiar with the lives of those injured or killed. In the case of international stories names are often withheld in favor of the amorphous ‘community’ or ‘beneficiary.’

“There is the othering of people in the developing world, but we other our own,” someone added.

She said that poverty porn exists even within the United States, but it is generally seen through narrow stories about poverty about certain people or areas of the country. She asked how often we heard stories about Appalachia that were not about poor hicks.

I participated as one of the lead discussants. In my opening remarks I argued that poverty porn at its heart perpetuates a narrow view of development. By setting up a person or group of people in extreme need, an organization then tells the audience that they can make a difference and even save a life by making a donation or completing a single action.

That kind of messaging tells people that they have the sole ability to make a difference, as opposed to the people who are being helped actually helping themselves. In fact, the message of individual empowerment manages to strip dignity and power from vulnerable people and even dis-empowers the audience.

I warned against the trend towards telling good stories. If the problem with poverty porn is that it focuses on a narrow part of a person’s life, it is not a solution to then pick a different aspect and tell only stories from that perspective. Suffering is a part of poverty, as is good news, as is a family sitting down for a meal.

Social media is developing into a tool that can upend the traditional forms of storytelling. The response to Kony 2012 by Ugandans was used as an example of this in action. People living in Uganda and even from the affected communities took to social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to voice their disagreement with the story told in the film. One group is losing its control over the story of poverty. However, social media is not a solution itself.

“The othering remains even in the social media space,” said a member of the audience.

Filter bubbles, an idea by Eil Pariser, were discussed as a downfall of social media. One person asked what could be done from hierarchies from developing within social media in much the same way they are observed in life. Education was mentioned as a necessary component that needs to reach young people and people in power alike.

One audience member remarked having only been exposed to two months of world history while in middle school. She said there is a fundamental problem when the goal is to try to reach people with more information, news and stories about poverty and they have so little knowledge about the world around them.

Though solutions to addressing poverty porn are hard, the fact that discussions are taking place across various partners is evidence of a slow shift.

“The poor are beginning to be the heroes of their own stories,” said a participant.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.