What the first half of 2020 showed us

by Dana Osborn

With each new year comes the dissolution of past struggles and a mental commitment to starting afresh. A lot of the time this is paired with a sigh of relief that the past year is over. While we ‘set aside’ prior ills and disappointments, we optimistically establish our goals for the coming months. This annual tradition is embraced by social media culture. We see people eagerly highlight their plans, aspirations and resolutions for the year. The result? Our feeds flooded with memes encouraging the embrace of wishful thinking.

[Above: The annual “new year, new me” resolution. Photo: ‘New Year New Me’ page via Facebook]

Unfortunately, before the end of January, a new disposition begins to emerge within online content highlighting the negative things that have already happened in the new year. This is usually accompanied by a message that essentially ‘writes off’ the rest of the year in hopes that the next will be better.

Clearly, this sentiment that "*insert year* should be cancelled" is not a new one but some would say that 2020 has broken records regarding the immense number of life-altering events that have so-far occurred.

Of course, this means that there is a pretty much unanimous wish for 2020 to be cancelled, or rather symbolically shoved into the farthest, darkest corner of the abyss, never to be seen or spoken of again.

2020 had a rather rocky start. The enduring conflict between the United States and Iraq, as a result of Iraq resisting US hegemony (the unipolar global power arrangement under US leadership) - paired with attempts to relinquish the presence of US troops in Iraq - began to intensify in December 2019. In 2020, the rumblings of a possible world-war generated concern around the world, as the oscillating, violent attacks from respective states began to escalate.

In addition to the concern of a possible World War 3, the chaos of early 2020 was further heightened by the Australian wildfires. The fires raged on from the very beginning of January right until the end of March. The devastation and environmental impact were vast and unthinkable. According to the UN environment programme, just some of the effects were: over 18 million hectares burned; roughly 5,900 buildings destroyed; a huge loss of animal life and habitat; health risks due to air pollution; economic decline due to the impact on farming and tourism; and, an estimated 400 million tons of carbon released into the atmosphere.

At the height of these fires, the social media community rallied together, sharing information and devastating images about the fires. Posts about the fires encouraged donations towards rebuilding lost homes and supporting officials who were attempting to combat the devastation that the fires caused. In addition, many attempted to raise awareness about the impacts of catastrophes such as this.

[Above: Over one billion animals were killed during these fires. Photo: Matthew Abbott for The New York Times]

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic cannot go unmentioned. Arguably, the winner of the 2020’s most inconvenient and life-altering event award. Within the past few months, we have seen the whole world come to a stop in some capacity. Not a single person has been left unaffected by this pandemic in multiple facets of life.

Exploring the effects of this virus on the loss of life, lifestyles, mental health, domestic violence, the economy, financial security, and many other realms of life is not the point of this piece. Rather, the point is to highlight its effect on social media culture.

The static nature of ‘lockdown life’ has pushed many to heavily rely on social media, accelerating its already rapidly-growing presence and influence in our lives. It has been the substitute for social interaction, in the absence of physical presence. Even so, the increased awareness about the media and the actions of governments dealing with the pandemic has been immense. As a result of this virus, many people became aware of the influence of the media on public opinion and sentiment. As a result, people began to question what they were reading, analyse it, and grow more conscious of the information they were sharing. Trends, encouraging fact-checking and responsible behaviour during this pandemic were widespread through social media feeds.

[The unobserved sights of Paris, as COVID-19 brings the world to a standstill. Photo: Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times]

The unjust murders of African American men and women such as Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in addition to the array of police brutality incidents have been the fuel for the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years. More recently, the murder of African-American man George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota has created a world-wide surge within this movement. The video of his murder circulated on social media, showing police officer Derek Michael Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck while he pleaded for him to stop until he - after seven minutes - lost consciousness and later died.

This devastating attack on an innocent black life rippled throughout the world igniting anger and sadness. This caused a new wave of the Black Lives Matter movement to be reignited with more international attention and momentum than we have ever seen. On social media, the response was fierce and powerful, resulting in petitions, (arguably performative) campaigns like #BlackoutTuesday, journals, and other content with the aim to shed light on systemic racism, and GoFundMe pages for Floyd’s family and organisations dedicated to fighting racism in multiple facets of life.

[Above: The displays of devastation in Minneapolis, which spread throughout the world. Photo: Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times]

This is what we know: From the Australian wildfires, people rallied to aid, sharing information and understanding more and more about the importance of our securing our natural environment. During COVID-19, people became more aware of the influence of the media on knowledge and understanding and the importance of meticulously vetting information. As a result of George Floyd's murder, the world united against racism, as we have seen in the real changes and consequences for those who have committed similarly heinous crimes based on racial and other prejudices.

We know that this year has been filled with more disruption and devastation than we have seen in a very long time. And as we cross the half-way mark of 2020, we can adopt one of two mindsets: either we ‘write off’ the remainder of the year, or we can take this realisation that life is unpredictable and that we are not where we should be as humans in many respects, appreciate the charge of these online movements, and work towards change.

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