Log onto Instagram, and you will surely see story posts about the Sudan Meal Project. Online do-gooders see the representations of the Sudanese tragedy in the media and their hearts move. They pray that they can help in whatever way they can. Thankfully, it’s easy to feed starving children. All anyone must do is share a screenshot on their Instagram story. But this seems a little too good to be true, doesn’t it?
Is it really the case that sharing a picture to your high school friends feeds starving people halfway across the globe? Probably not. If something seems too simple of a fix, it probably is. And on the internet, we must remember that not everything we see is real. To understand the Sudan Meal Project phenomenon, we need to understand the state of media and representations of catastrophe.
What We See vs. Reality
To say that media in the modern world is flawed is somewhat of a cliche, but the shortcomings of contemporary news run deep. Presently, it seems that the biggest issue with the media is the deplatforming and delegitimization of an entire branch of political discourse. Many call this development the “culture war,” in which progressive-owned media companies aim to spread false information about right-wing political commentators. In addition, many see social media platforms ban fringe voices and find it problematic for the state of free speech.
This is how we frame the “media issue” in politics today. But the way we view this issue misses the broader problems of media itself. We don’t examine the underlying assumptions of the news system; rather, we take it for granted and continue to consume information.
Catastrophe in the Media
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard identified many problems with the structure of news media. His thesis in The Illusion of the End is that the media relies on catastrophe to exist in the first place. It then must represent this catastrophe for viewers so it can turn a profit. The consequence, though, is that the news story is removed from reality when this happens. Baudrillard explains:
All the media live off the presumption of catastrophe and of the succulent imminence of death. A photo in Liberation, for example, shows us a convoy of refugees ‘which, some time after this shot was taken, was to be attacked by the Iraqi army’. Anticipation of effects, morbid simulation, emotional blackmail. It was the same on CNN with the arrival of the Scuds. Nothing is news if it does not pass through that horizon of the virtual, that hysteria of the virtual – not in the psychological sense, but in the sense of a compulsion for what is presented, in all bad faith, as real to be consumed as unreal.
A Virtual Shift
What we get is not exactly what happened. Everything we see in the news is altered from its original form. Sometimes this is by necessity, but it always works to serve a greater purpose: giving profit to the corporation. Baudrillard then continues to explain the effect modern news media has on the population:
Spectators then become exoterics of the screen, living their revolution as an exoticism of images, themselves exogenous, touristic spectators of a virtual history. From the moment the studio becomes the strategic centre, and the screen the only site of appearance, everyone wants to be on it at all costs, or else gathers in the street in the glare of the cameras, and these, indeed, actually film one another. The street becomes an extension of the studio, that is, of the non-site of the event, of the virtual site of the event. The street itself becomes a virtual space.
No longer, though, do we amass in the streets. Instead of extending the virtual world into the physical world by physically amassing to take part in the representation, we can do it from the comfort of our own smartphones on Instagram.
The Sudan Meal Project Conundrum
This leads us to the present issue: the Sudan Meal Project. The Instagram profile for the Sudan Meal Project (@sudanmealproject) touts a proud 390 thousand followers. The number of times people have shared the post from the account is probably impossible to calculate.
The problem, though, is that the goal of the page is probably not real. Nobody knows what organization (if any) is backing the project (if it exists). If the hypothetical organization has the resources to feed these people, why do they need likes and shares? There is no site to an official organization linked on the page. We have absolutely no reason to believe that the page is legitimate.
People are realizing this and calling them out for it. The comments on the page’s only post are filled with questions about the authenticity of the organization and its actions. Slowly but surely, people are not buying it.
So why start a page like this? Simple: to sell it. The new digital world allows people to make money if they have a big enough Instagram following, with the largest meme pages making millions a year via sponsored posts. It is likely the case that the admin of this account is using the tragedy in Sudan to make a quick buck by selling an account with a huge following.
This tactic is simply a furtherance of what Baudrillard identified as the primary problem with media. There is a tragedy, so people in the digital world can augment it to fix their aims. They spoon-feed the horrible conditions of Sudanese people to the Instagram herd and profit off of it.
As mentioned earlier, people want to take part in the grand display. By posting the Sudan Meal Project post on their stories, people can rest easy knowing their peers see them as a saintly individual. No longer do you have to spend a single dollar donating or hour of your time volunteering. Now, you can join the ranks of the heroes of Sudan with a few social media posts.
This is the new hyperreality we live in. The situation in Sudan is providing numerous benefits for the digital western world. It’s an unconscious godsend to those looking for moral or financial profit. And the Sudan Meal Project is definitely neither the first nor last of its kind.
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