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MediaSeptember 16, 2020

‘Shit You Should Care About’ and the rise of Insta-news

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A New Zealand Instagram account has gone global with its simple, attention-grabbing coverage of international politics and social issues. Sherry Zhang talks to the founders of Shit You Should Care About about social media’s evolving role as a news source.

No longer solely the realm of brunch pics, filtered selfies and cute pet photos, Instagram has become home to a new generation of information sharing and activism. 

Shit You Should Care About (SYSCA) is a New Zealand-founded Instagram news page – and sometimes Harry Styles stan account – that attracts around 100,000 likes per post, with an ever-rising 1.8 million follower base including celebrities like Ariana Grande, Benee and Bella Hadid. It’s also a website and podcast, with a focus on international social justice issues, and a particular interest in US and New Zealand politics.

Accounts like SYSCA are growing in popularity due to their ability to package complex issues on a social media platform that operates under the starved attention economy. It’s a “280-character-swipe-right” world, as shown by the rise of slide-show activism, which makes use of Instagram’s 10-picture limit per post to disseminate information. 

To get a strong following, activism and news-sharing accounts must hijack Instagram’s algorithm, which usually favours bright, slick lifestyle shots of Instagram models, puppies and a e s t h e t i c travel shots.

This year has seen protest movements such as Black Lives Matter use social media as an integral part of activism. #BLM started online in 2013, growing momentum as disturbing videos of Black people being subjected to police brutality began circulating. 

Nationwide Covid-19 lockdowns further pushed movements like these to organise, protest and spread awareness online. 

Lucy Blakiston, Ruby Edwards and Olivia Mercer are the three twenty-something New Zealanders who run SYSCA – currently from Lucy’s mum’s dining room table. The trio grew up together in Blenheim, and say their philosophy is “best friends first, project comes second”.  

Lucy, Liv and Rubes (picture: UC Women in Business)

Graduates of Victoria University in Wellington, Blakiston and Edwards majored in international relations, while Mercer studied psychology. It all started in 2018 after Blakiston grew frustrated by the parameters placed on her part-time writing job. She recalls texting the other two “let’s start SYSCA” while sitting in the back of a lecture theatre.  

As it did for many university graduates, Covid-19 put Blakiston and Edwards’ overseas plans on hold. Since then, they’ve been working hard on making SYSCA their full-time job, while Mercer finishes up her postgraduate studies in design and will jump on board in a greater capacity next year.    

Edwards manages article submissions for the website, Mercer takes care of the designs and helps run the podcast, while Blakiston does all the Instagram posting. 

The Instagram page is a mix of original content and re-shared resources from activists, with recent posts including a share of a comic from thefakepan on police brutality in the US. SYSCA’s re-share boosted the comic up to 81,000 likes and counting. The trio say the platform is less about their own views, more how they can “champion other people’s voices”. 

SYSCA’s daily Instagram stories consist of highlighted rundowns from international news sites. At the time of writing, it’s migrant camps in Greece and the Belarus protests.

September 15 2020 (shityoushouldcareabout Instagram story)

Meanwhile, the website delves into longer-form coverage on various “shit things happening around the world”, with posts written by a team of international contributors on topics ranging from the Sikh genocide to Chilean protests, as well as New Zealand contributors writing on issues like Māori and Pasifika solidarity with BLM.

There’s also a podcast, The Shit Show, comprising a collection of pop culture and political summaries – a recent episode asked, “Could you date a Trump supporter?”

The Shit Show podcast

SYSCA’s Instagram following grew substantially from their coverage of Covid and the Black Lives Matter movement. For many, following an “Insta-news” account is an easier way of keeping updated, because “unless you were constantly monitoring the news, it’s hard to stay on top of it”, says Blakiston. She’s also noticed that mainstream news, especially in the US, often ignores the valuable on-the-ground information shared by citizen journalists. 

Given the nature of Instagram, however, accounts like this run the risk of being accused of performative activism – when people, brands, celebrities and influencers share content for the sake of appearing “woke”, without ever working on themselves. A recent example being the black squares that clogged up important information channels during the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement this year.  

SYSCA is wary of this, and tries to share petitions and grassroots movements where possible, “to encourage people to take the extra step in their activism”. But Blakiston points to some issues, such as the re-education camps for Uyghur Muslims in China, that just don’t have straightforward solutions right now. 

Blakiston maintains that the team of three are “not experts, but we do everything with a positive intent”. For SYSCA, it means constantly learning new things from their international audience and being responsive when they do get it wrong. 

And while SYSCA hasn’t monetised its content, Blakiston’s noticed the increasing commercialisation of activism, mentioning “the Australian bush fires, all these influencers selling their merch and donating 15% of the proceeds to relief efforts”. 

The trio maintain SYSCA is an information-sharing platform, and says they feel a responsibility to their communities. Determining “what the right and wrong side of history is to be on” is not without its complexities, says Blakiston. “We’ve never said we’re a completely objective platform.” 

Mercer says she doesn’t believe objectivity exists, as “everyone has their own perspective and the medium they use [to convey it]”. She points to what she considers weak and sanitised coverage by mainstream media of issues such as mental health and sex. Instead, they “really try to have it raw and gritty” to reveal the truth in those experiences, she says. 

Long-form content from the SYSCA website

“We’re not trying to fuck with ‘objective media,’ which in general has its place,” says Edwards. “We’re trying to be slightly outside of it.” Their focus is to guide people’s experience of the media, they say. 

SYSCA hopes to make the news “understandable, digestible and reliable”, and given the concise format of social media, is there to provide “a base level of information, so you can give a shit and continue to do your research”, says Edwards. “A lot of people probably never looked up the BBC, but they’ll see a story we share and think, maybe I’ll Google it,” says Mercer.  

However, Edwards has noticed the rise of fake news, pointing to TikTok as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories on a range of topics, including Covid-19. 

They occasionally receive submissions in their inbox on issues that at first glance look legit, but on closer inspection, “it’ll have stemmed from somewhere like 4chan”. They won’t publish anything they can’t verify, says Edwards.

Their audience appears to appreciate SYSCA’s Kiwi sense of humour, but the fact three New Zealanders are so focused on American politics has raised a few eyebrows, especially from Americans regarding criticism of Trump.   

But Blakiston says their coverage of US politics is due to her genuine interest in it – she has an international relations degree – and because Edwards grew up in the States. The trio acknowledge that they’re often working “in their western eco-chambers” and say it’s something they’re trying to work beyond.  

What about people who might say they should focus on issues at home – the ongoing effects of colonisation for example, or homelessness in our communities? According to Blakiston, “people see how lucky we are and to not take things for granted. And it can be scary to watch what’s happening overseas, and see New Zealand political parties that start spouting the same bullshit.”

“We sell ourselves as this perfect little country,” adds Edwards, “but the issues discussed in Black Lives Matter are still so prevalent in our society.”

“Honestly, Americans are much better at calling themselves out than we are at calling ourselves out. We get very defensive,” says Mercer. 

For SYSCA, engaging with New Zealand issues and international causes are not mutually exclusive, because “if we only gave a shit about things in our own backyard, then we wouldn’t get anywhere”.

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