Before I begin, just take a minute and think about some of the most buzz-worthy headlines you’ve come across since the year of 2021 began, all gossip and celebrity exposé’s set aside. Maybe, the GameStop share scandal or the WhatsApp privacy disaster come to mind? So, why is it exactly that these particular news stories shined above the rest? It’s not like there aren’t bigger things to report about.
The truth here is, and has been for years now, that these are the big elites that people look up to for the best, but also secretly hope to fall on their face flat when they mess up. Their sudden reputation plunges are exciting and downright thrilling. Their mistakes show that despite the billions they earn, the exploitative measures they use, and the high and mighty façade they may put on, these people are folks just like us. And the consequences of messing with the public thinking they’re above us? A major PR crisis and an organization’s worst nightmare.
Some Privacy Please?!
Now this one might be applicable to anyone with a smartphone and a mobile number, or most at the very least considering the scale of disruption we saw. Let me start right from the top. At the beginning of the ‘hopeful’ new year of 2021, WhatsApp, one of the biggest online texting services and extensively used communication platforms, had some pretty exciting news to share with its 2 billion service users. WhatsApp’s new privacy update gave people the choice to either accept that their data is to be shared with Facebook for business advertising purposes, or reject it and leave WhatsApp for good. And though many people did misunderstand the whole privacy update as ‘all’ of their data being shared with Facebook, (while it was actually about data being retained from business interaction conversations) there wasn’t much solace in knowing that the choice they were given was actually an ultimatum, and the ultimatum, completely unfair.
The power dynamic between big corporations and the masses had tilted too far in favor of the bigshots. Enough for them to think that the public would just sit there and take it all as it was given.
Millions of people collectively decided that they would leave WhatsApp for apps like Signal, ironically developed by an ex-WhatsApp co-founder, and Telegram. Though the dent in WhatsApp’s usage ratio wasn’t too damaging, the hit to its reputation unfortunately was. The power dynamic between big corporations and the masses had tilted too far in favor of the bigshots. Enough for them to think that the public would just sit there and take it all as it was given.
But if media audiences were the passive ‘let’s just move on’ kind, every media-sociology debate would end before it even began. And to think that the people, in millions, just decided to up and delete WhatsApp as if it never existed, is certainly food for thought for some pretty big people, isn’t it? Maybe they aren’t as invincible as they once thought themselves to have been?
And maybe they’ll probably think twice the next time they make us choose. They wouldn’t want the people who stayed back thinking that they can do without WhatsApp too, now would they?
Sharing is Caring
Now, where to begin?
GameStop, a precariously positioned company, on the brink of extinction on the stock market, was being juiced out by major hedge funds with a profit-making technique called ‘shorting’. Basically, in the most exciting way I can explain, they were selling borrowed GameStop shares for a certain price, waiting for those prices to fall more, buying it back at the same price to return, and pocketing the profit. It’s not to say that shorting doesn’t come with its risks, but this seemed as safe a bet as any. Well, that is until an amateur forum on Reddit decided it wasn’t.
This forum, wallstreetbets, with many, if not all of its members, planned to go ahead and buy so many (and I mean a LOT) GameStop shares. So many that the company’s market value went up 1700% in just a matter of days of the plan coming into action. And if we know our media scene today, this chaos wasn’t just newsworthy, it achieved the ultimate level of meme-worthiness. As the hedge fund managers ran everywhere panicking while trying to find a way out, memes, TikToks, Insta reels, Twitter posts, and virtually everything else a person considers social media, went berserk. It was the first time, in a considerable while, that people had planned, strategized, and executed something that broke an entire system that was considered… well unbreakable.
The bottom line here was that, this incident brought about something that the crowd had thought they had lost the chance to redeem a long time ago.
This entire affair became a live ‘dramedy’ people were rushing to watch. And to imagine something as boring as stocks and shares, trending on major search engines is an inconceivable surprise. Especially in a world whose collective attention span barely lasts a few seconds if the news isn’t breaking some record for catchiest headline. The bottom line here was that, this incident brought about something that the crowd had thought they had lost the chance to redeem a long time ago.
So… Who’s Taking the Wheel?
History is witness to many such efforts showing the strength of the masses over the elite. Eye-opening events such as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Yahoo data hack came into purview and were put on trials in front of the whole world, but the fact still remains that they happened. And why? Simply because users were taken for granted and treated as a right rather than a privilege to have. So, there is some truth to the idea that says there never really was an event that brought about the kind of transparency we really needed from big corporations. And yes, it hasn’t come about now either, at least not to the utopian ideal we hold. However, when people come together on a common social networking platform and baffle a group of untouchable VIPs at the top of the food chain, it still counts as progress.
On an ending note, a ‘power shift’ isn’t as apt a phrase as much a ‘power play’ is, in describing the dynamic behind the changes we see today. Taking the people as a given in this make-or-break world just won’t cut it anymore as people become more literate, more digitally active, and more capable of understanding the ills of class divides and digital exploitation. These priceless PR scandals may just be a badly crafted decision or a period of scrutiny for the companies it incriminates. But we now have to take charge and look at the why instead of just the how to understand where we stand in this cycle. To put it straight, the masses today are taking back control and setting an important precedent. One that’s set to bring a new paradigm shift for the future. One where those at the top can finally comprehend that no structure stays standing, without the support of a strong foundation for it to find its footing on.
Cover: Kane Reinholdtsen