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.

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.

Share.

About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom found 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.

  • http://twitter.com/AmandaCBarnes Amanda Barnes

    As Chiminanda Adichie said in her TED talk about the danger of a single story: “Show a people as one thing and one thing over and over again and that’s what they become.” NGO portrayals of global poverty have become part of the Global North’s cultural landscape and as such play a strong role in reinforcing and sustaining an image of the Global South that only engages with a small part of the whole reality. More work needs to be done to develop new ways for NGOs to raise
    money without needing to rely on out-dated clichés and stereotypes. Perhaps things would change a lot if the people directly affected by poverty challenge these dehumanising images, and social media could be useful here. But it would be even better if images of poverty were actually created by the people who themselves are affected by poverty.

    • MtAiryMuse

      I was thinking of just the same talk. I am working on a book about all the improved, low cost tools/technologies which can help globally poor women work more productively. Searching for photos where women are active, owning their labor and looking empowered, are plentiful, but you need to look for them. For every one of those there are hundreds of photos of women passively being given something someone things they should get. Enjoy what I am finding: http://www.womensglobaltoolkit.com – also please send me any photo leads that come to mind!

  • http://twitter.com/socprogress Social Progress

    This article touches on some of the reasons that the Social Progress Imperative is committed to NOT using development porn in our communications.

  • http://twitter.com/hansonphoto Richard Hanson

    Is there not an extreme irony in using a news picture from 1994 (nearly 20 years ago, from a very specific news situation) to illustrate an article about how NGOs promote their work? Kevin Carter’s picture was shot for news not for an NGO – in my experience it wasn’t widely used by NGOs even then, and certainly isn’t in current use. There are major issues of representation and news reporting to be discussed, but using a 20 year old image to illustrate this article is verging on the irresponsible I’d suggest.

    • http://aviewfromthecave.com Tom Murphy

      Thanks for the comment Richard. I chose that image for the exact reason you highlight. The discussion of poverty porn is far from simple. Carter’s image was controversial and is still discussed because some argues that it is in poor taste while others say it is a representation of what was happening at the time. And I should add that the discussion here was largely centered around NGOs, media outlets are not immune from poverty porn.

      I could have certainly used a better image, I admit that much. But, in my rush to write and publish, I went with an example that I knew well.

  • http://twitter.com/bexmcmurray Rebecca McMurray

    I agree that there are issues around how people are depicted in fundraising campaigns and that as fundraisers we need to look at different and better ways of doing this. For example, the charity I work for just produced a 5 minute video that depicts women laughing – it tells their stories but in a really positive light showing that, like the rest of us they have moments of laughter. I really felt that this was a great way of showing our work, and the people we work with in a positive way – showing that they are human, who enjoy some of the same things that we do. I think that more people connect to this, rather than the campaigns that ‘other’ poor women.