Exposing the Truth in Different Centuries

Social media has become a large part of how we consume news and current events, with many of those in younger generations predominately learning about news events from different apps such as Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. Many of us follow pages highlighting issues that spread awareness and action to create change. In the past few years, social media has even become a hub for activism on different issues, including pressuring corporations to change harmful business practices. However, in previous generations, this activism came in different forms, such as through muckrakers in the 20th century. The connection between muckrakers and contemporary social media activism is one worth exploring. 

The History of Muckrakers

At the beginning of the 20th century, investigative journalists were often called muckrakers that sought to expose the injustices of big corporations. The name muckraker came from the difficult conditions that journalists endured to learn the truth. Formerly, the term had a negative connotation and referred to a phrase in a book called “The Pilgrim’s Passage” by John Bunyan: in Bunyan’s words, “the Man with the Muckrake… could look no way but downward.” It became a name for reporters who wished to present news in an enticing way to those concerned about economic and social issues. Originally, the term was popularized by Theodore Roosevelt in his call for journalists to expose corruption and labor issues during the Progressive Era. The Progressive Era was the pre-World War One era in American history in which government officials and concerned citizens worked to achieve progress in eliminating corruption and monopolies created during the Gilded Age

Some of the most prominent muckrakers of the time included Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Ida B Wells, who were important journalists that worked to expose corruption and inequality through their articles. These writers achieved this by investigating corporations that often worked to maximize profits through forms of exploitation. By raising awareness, they were able to begin to create change at different levels of society. 

One of the most well-known investigative cases conducted by Sinclair was his discovery of the number of unknown substances being put into industrially produced meats. This created general concern for the lack of attention placed on the inspection of foods, and ultimately led to the creation of the FDA to better observe and regulate food and drug companies. 

The Link to Social Media

In a similar vein, social media activists can raise awareness on pressing issues to a much wider audience than would be possible through newspaper articles. This is the most prevalent way that the legacy of muckrakers has been carried on by social media activists. In addition, it is an attractive form of media to younger generations who do not watch television or read newspapers as often as older generations to understand current events. 

Further, social media activism has been important in spreading awareness of current issues that affect rural communities not often addressed by larger media organizations as they do not make up a big part of their audience. For example, local reporting on government officials, upcoming elections, and other local issues that would impact smaller communities has been featured on social media platforms and accounts. 

Social media also makes the transfer of knowledge be more accessible to a wider audience given the adoption of smartphones and social media to exchange information. While social media is often not paired directly with investigative journalism, it does allow for more independent voices to be broadcast around the world. 

Posting on the Bully Pulpit Account

Another large similarity between muckrakers and current social media activism is bully pulpit activism, which involves asking readers or viewers to participate in creating change by contacting elected officials and organizations in addition to attending protests and donating to organizations. Bully pulpit is defined as “a prominent public position (such as a political office) that provides an opportunity for expounding one’s views.” Social media activists, with the support of their followers, have a great deal of influence and a prominent public position which then gives them the ability to spread their views and mobilize others to make social change.

For instance, a recent example of social media activism occurred in the U.S. when the federal law prohibiting evictions during the pandemic was about to expire without any further extensions in place. Public officials, such as Cori Bush, were able to use their bully pulpit, which included their social media activism, to pressure for an extension of the law. 

This is not to say that modern-day journalists utilizing print media are not doing important investigative work. However, large print media organizations have become less focused or able to create action and change-based news information. 24/7 news channels and online websites have the advantage of being able to make the news much more immediate than previously possible. However, the focus on constant reporting means fewer opportunities to unpack issues and explain them in-depth, with reporters instead often defaulting to personal opinions to give analysis. 

Of course, one issue is that the accounts and information we are uniquely shown are influenced by what content we already consume on social media. Usually, social media algorithms are designed to show us similar posts and accounts we have previously interacted with. While this can be useful for finding issues and opinions we already agree with, it can also create an echo chamber situation in which one is not exposed to different ideas. That is where social media does create an issue of being able to incite action without any other opportunities for narratives that would help consider all sides of the issue because of the echo chambers, based on the information they have explained in detail to readers and listeners. The most prominent example of echo chambers comes from the U.S general election in which many far-right and conservative-leaning echo chambers created doubt in the electoral system and prompted a violent insurrection at the US Capitol. 

What has Changed Since Muckraking

There is a major difference between muckrakers of the progressive era and those in the current day participating in social media activism. For many Millennials and Generation Z, social media allows for a much more connected form of news than print forms of media that brought attention to similar political and social issues. In addition, the voices of those who may have been traditionally silenced by the media can begin to lead the discourse, even if established news organizations are still unwilling to highlight the issues. 

For example, journalists and reporters in Palestine used social media to show the brutality of the Israeli security forces towards Palestinian citizens long before major news organizations started consulting Palestinian leaders and authorities on the issues. Another great example is the use of social media to organize what happened in the Arab Spring through the use of Facebook to create information on when protests were happening. 

This is important as many smaller newspapers have become underfunded and cannot sustain local reporting that is directed towards small communities. Compared to today, the early 20th century had many more newspapers producing information relevant to their communities. The use of social media to shed light on issues that otherwise could not be spread to a wide audience hopefully results in the sharing of information with community members and beyond. 

Ultimately, one could argue that muckrakers helped pave the way for modern-day social media activism, which has proven to be an important means of educating younger generations on present-day issues. As we as a society begin to better understand the consequences of social media, we can better adjust and use it more efficiently as a tool to better understand the world around us. 

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Solomon Johnson

Solomon is a resident of Albuquerque and a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico, where he studied Political Science and International Studies. His research mainly focuses on the European Union...