Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably well aware by now that our lungs are on fire. The Amazon has been burning for weeks now and with the power of social media, and in particular Instagram, we all finally know about it. So, how did this all start?The Amazon rainforest is situated in the north of South America. With supplies of fresh water and 10% of the world’s biodiversity, it is a tropical haven for many unique animals and ecosystems. The Amazon contains thousands of tree species, 50,000 species of plants, and hundreds of insects. As the largest rainforest in the world, the Amazon also plays a major ecological service to our planet: it essentially cleans our air. We all learnt that in school, right? Carbon dioxide goes in, oxygen comes out. Despite trees operating as a natural filtration system, humankind tends to clear them. One of the main reasons the Amazon started burning was due to deforestation. Despite efforts to preserve the rainforest, much of its land is still being cleared for agricultural activity. Farmers and ranchers set alight previously cleared land to kill off excess vegetation. Land that is in the process of being cleared is also burned to speed up the process. Essentially, this is to make room for cows, crops and other vegetation. As Brazil is a major exporter of soybeans, crude oil, chicken and meat, much land is needed. Even though the fires seem bad (and they are), they are nowhere near as bad as the fires recorded prior to and in 2010. In the peak of deforestation 10,000 square miles were cleared, and in 2007 and 2010, during the El Nino which brought on harsh droughts, there were around 600,000 fires burned. Thankfully, regulations were implemented to curb deforestation and illegal fire activity. However, since the election of the newly appointed President, Jair Bolsonaro, the tightened reins have begun to slip. Protections in place for forests and the enforcement of laws surrounding illegal logging have weakened. This is probably the most concerning aspect of these fires: the potential for more in the near future.
Jair Bolsonaro, the newly appointed Brazillian President.Already, satellite images can show us that the fires burning today match up with the trees felled earlier in the year. Who knows how much more land will be cleared this year, and how many fires will ensue next dry season. These fires are also exacerbated by the harsh conditions of the dry season, taking place over June to December. Dried vegetation spreads fire faster. If the situation wasn’t as bad as it seems already, there’s also a projected tipping point to all of this destruction. Scientists predict that even a small rise in deforestation could mean the lush, dense rainforest transitioning into a woodland savanna (think Aussie outback - sparse trees and bush). Despite the Amazon containing some very scary wildlife which many of us don’t particularly care for (Anacondas, Piranhas…etc), this is concerning. On top of that, sparse forests don’t have the same capacity for absorbing carbon dioxide. Therefore, more toxic gases will be emitted into the atmosphere, and we all know what happens from there.One of the reasons why this story has spread like… wildfire (for lack of a better metaphor) on social media, is due to the absence of it’s reportage in mainstream media. Before major media channels picked this story up, Instagram users were sharing images and posts to spread awareness. We can all speculate why such an important story wouldn’t be reported, but there isn’t a clear reason as to why, for now. This has, however, led to criticism as to why the largest rainforest in the world wouldn’t get the same recognition as a burning cathedral (Notre Dame).
So, what has been the international reaction towards this issue? In the world of politics, there has been a little back and forth between world leaders, but ultimately, not much has been done, much to everyone’s surprise (yes, that’s sarcasm). The 45th G7 Summit took place last week and saw Government leaders from across the globe attend meetings in France to discuss trade, economics, politics, and the environment. The wealthiest world leaders pledged a donation of $22 million to help combat fires. This, however, was very angrily rejected by Bolsonaro. The main reason for this rejection was due to disagreements between Bolsonaro and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron. President Bolsonaro called for the withdrawal of comments made suggesting Brazil did not have sovereignty over the Amazon. Shortly following Bolsanaro’s heated words, a $12 million donation from Britain was accepted. Unfortunately, some damage had already been done for the Brazillian president who experienced a drop in popularity. Nearly 40% of Brazil evaluated his government as “bad” or “terrible”, and over 50% evaluated his personal performance by the same terms. In regards to media attention, mainstream channels are well and truly reporting the story now. Still, much to the disapproval of the public, not in the same fashion or with the same level of urgency as other stories (cough cough, Notre Dame). And how did the public react? With memes, of course, the internet’s greatest cultural byproduct. In response to hundreds of thousands of users expressing their “thoughts and prayers”, many hit back with memes that were pretty much an accurate reflection of the real situation. Memes pointed out the great disconnect between social activism on social media and actual outcomes, and they emphasised the disparity between conversations regarding the burning Amazon and more trivial topics. It goes to show that memes, though ridiculous at times, can be quite pointed. You may agree or disagree on the importance of memes, but know that Meme Studies is an actual course at the Northwestern University in Illinois.
So, what are some other stories that traditional media was late to the party for? Let’s have a look at some past campaigns and movements shared on social media.
The #MeToo movement was a social media campaign that launched following allegations of sexual abuse made by dozens of women against Harvey Weinstein. Women were encouraged to repost the hashtag to highlight the prevalence of sexual abuse against women in society. Millions of women ended up sharing the hashtag, including some very well-known celebrities, such as Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan, Lady Gaga, Reese Witherspoon, and Jennifer Lawrence.
The Heartbeat Bill
Ok, this one did get news coverage, but as you know, journalists and reporters have to be quite neutral about these issues. Women on Instagram, however, don’t. In response to the Heartbeat Bill (House Bill 490) that was passed in Alabama, as well as other American states predominantly in the South, celebrities and people on Instagram spoke out against the law. The Heartbeat Bill was a controversial legislation that prohibited abortions past the point at which a fetus develops a heartbeat. A fetus’ heartbeat is detectable from six to seven weeks. At this stage, many women don’t realise they’re pregnant, so getting an abortion within that timeframe is not always possible. Obviously, many women saw this as an infringement on their rights and bodies. After all, the 25 members of the Alabama state senate that passed the bill were white men.
In response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of the African-American teenager, Trayvon Martin, people aired their frustrations by circulating the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media. The hashtag stood to highlight the frequent instances of police brutality and the killings of black people. More broadly, the movement reminded people of the heavily institutionalised racial inequality that still exists in America. Evidently, to stay on top of worldly issues and current events, it’s important to have a scroll through social media. What’s interesting to remember is that we have the power to give rise to these movements, stories and news. Not only do platforms such as Instagram share important stories from across the globe, but they also get us to question our media, the way news is shared and the way world leaders react to these problems.