“Black Mirror” and Our Agency in the Social Media Age

by Devan Davies-Wood

Our computers, mobile phones, and even our watches now offer us avenues with which to talk to and share things with each other. Many people see these things as tools, but plenty of others view them as distractions. Through our connection via the internet, we can interact with each other through social networks and media platforms. A post on your Instagram or YouTube has the potential to be seen by millions of people. Furthermore, messages of both love and hate can be shared with the public through these platforms. Developments in digital technology present us with tools to manipulate the beliefs and actions of the public.

Black Mirror is a popular contemporary British television program, created by Charlie Brooker, that depicts standalone narratives, all centered around the influence of technology (in the near future) on our lives. As Jenna Wortham writes in The New York Times, “Each episode of ‘Black Mirror’ — named for the way our screens look while powered down — paints a different nightmarescape of a future gone technologically awry.” Each episode introduces a new group of characters whose lives are irrevocably changed through an experience with a futuristic technology. This paper will focus exclusively on three episodes: “The National Anthem,” in which a British Prime Minister Callow who, in order to rescue a kidnapped duchess by an anonymous figure, is commanded to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television; “Hated In the Nation” which centers around the inexplicable deaths of unpopular public figures, who are unwittingly targeted by the killer due to people posting “#DeathTo” directed towards an unpopular figure, via Twitter; and “Nosedive” which tells the story of Lacie who is obsessed with garnering high ratings, since most people use their phones to rate every interaction they have on a scale of one to five stars. Those with the lowest ratings are excluded from enjoying the same luxuries that those with high ratings have.

The majority of this series involves tragic stories, with the thread of advanced technology and its effects on society. These three episodes in particular utilize social media as a plot device, in which a person’s popularity or lack thereof directly affects their lives. While this is relevant in other episodes, most of the series focuses on other technologies such as cloning and virtual reality. The ubiquity and influence of social media leads everybody to be either (and sometimes all at once) spectator or participant, culprit or victim. The creator of the show, Charlie Brooker, paints those who merely spectate, as complicit. As Wortham writes, “Brooker understands that even as we swear off tweeting and promise to stop Googling our exes, our phones are still the last things we see before falling asleep and the first things we reach for when we awaken.” In these three episodes, the public at large is a crucial part of the respective narratives, by their interactions and transgressions via social media.

The very first episode of the series, and the first episode up for discussion is “The National Anthem.” Set in what we can assume is present day Britain, a video showing a tearful Princess Susanna bound to a chair and reading lines fed to her by an anonymous kidnapper, is uploaded to YouTube. The video directly addresses Prime Minister Callow, telling him that in order to rescue the Princess, he must be shown on live television, at a specific time, having full unsimulated intercourse with a Pig. By the time the government manages to have the video removed, it has already been viewed and duplicated by millions. At first, the public is sympathetic towards Callow. However, when the kidnapper learns of plans to use a double in place of Callow, he publishes a video in which the Princess appears to have a finger cut off. Thus, the public comes out in full support of the Princess, and Callow is pressured by the public, his political party, and the Royal Family to follow through with the demands. He does this, but later discovers that Susanna was freed from capture, unharmed, hours before the ransom deadline. Yet, the public failed to notice, as they were too preoccupied by their screens, watching the grotesque act that was soon to unfold.

In this narrative, the perception of the government figures by the public plays a huge role in the sequence of events. The kidnapper publishes the ransom video on YouTube, a massively successful and ubiquitous platform, for all to see. By doing so, he galvanizes the public to speak out, thereby forcing the hand of the government to side with public opinion. The individual, now implicated as a spectator, becomes a participant, facing a moral dilemma: support Callow or support Susanna. As Giles Harvey writes in The New Yorker, “Throughout the episode, the screen pulsates with news crawls and graphics, polling results, tweets. We briefly see a video of the kidnapped Princess on YouTube; it has received 19,345,973 views and, in a sardonic touch, more likes (8,471) than dislikes (8,004).” The public, distracted by their screens, allowed Susanna’s safe return to slip by unnoticed until it was too late to stop Callow from giving into the demands. Thus, the spectator rides the line between victim and accomplice - they too were duped by the kidnapper, yet they rallied in support of Susanna, not Callow. The events of the episode are more excruciating to endure given the discovery that the kidnapper was a visual artist, whose plan was to show how the people could miss events taking place right in front of them, because they are distracted by their screens.

The second episode in this discussion is “Hated in the Nation,” which focuses on DCI Parke and her partner Blue as they investigate peculiar and violent deaths of individuals who have garnered negative attention from the public (an aggressive journalist, and an unfriendly rapper). They discover that these two died because of mysteriously reprogrammed mechanical bees (Autonomous Drone Insects / ADIs) that are ubiquitous throughout the country, pollinating flowers due to the collapse of the bee population. They learn that the company which manufactures and controls the behavior of the ADIs has been hacked, and can be controlled by an unknown entity. However, the victims of the ADIs are chosen in accordance to a website describing the “Game of Consequence” via the hashtag “#DeathTo.” Twitter users can express their anger towards a public figure and (unwittingly) target them as a victim by a majority vote. The public eventually learns of the fatality of this hashtag, yet persist. When the identity of the terrorist is discovered, along with his manifesto, they are able to recover a hard drive with code that appears to stop the attacks. However, this leads to another hack, in which the identity and whereabouts of every single person to use “#DeathTo” is made available to the terrorist. All at once, these 387,036 people are killed by ADIs, and were the true intended victims of the terrorist. He sought to punish the everyday perpetrator of online hate by eliminating the anonymity that would otherwise keep them safe.

To a much greater extent than “The National Anthem,” the interference of social media is essential to the narrative of this episode. When using the appropriate hashtag, every spectator who voiced their anger towards a public figure through Twitter, became a participant - essentially guilty of manslaughter. By the second stage, in which the participation is revealed as fatal, those who continued to participate were essentially guilty of murder. Then, by the final stage, these culprits unknowingly faced the consequence of their actions, becoming a victim. Had the terrorist not hacked the system and reprogrammed the ADIs for his own motivations, then none of this would have happened. Yet, the question of an individual’s culpability in social media attacks is still raised, especially when there is a consensus amongst a population. In simple terms, “Hated in the Nation” takes cyberbullying to an extreme, leading us to think critically about our morals, how we express anger towards people who may still have done something, and what the consequences are.

The third and final episode I want to discuss is “Nosedive,” which places the viewer in a near-future in which most people use their smartphones to rate people out of five stars - like an Uber or Yelp for interactions. Relationships and commodities can be restricted depending on a person’s rating. As Tasha Robinson writes for The Verge, “The episode also suggests that the only way to approach the coveted 5.0 rating is to project a Martha Stewart Living illusion of graceful, plastic beauty.” Lacie is obsessed with getting good reviews, although she lives with her brother who is comfortable having a low rating and is antagonistic towards Lacie. Lacie wants to move to Pelican Cove, which requires a 4.5 rating, which she does not have. Out of the blue, she is invited to be the maid of honor for Naomi’s wedding, her childhood friend, who is perceived as more attractive and lives a comfortable life due to her very high rating. Unfortunately, during her journey to the wedding, she experiences constant setbacks and her rating drops rapidly, and by then she is uninvited by Naomi. However, Lacie manages to break into the celebration and her rating drops from 2.6 to 0, as she makes a drunken speech, ranting about her childhood obsession with Naomi, who was always mean to Lacie and even slept with her teenage boyfriend. Lacie is carried off to jail, where she quickly begins enjoying the opportunity to express herself without fear of a low rating.

Once again, social media is at the forefront in the narrative of “Nosedive.” Lacie’s ratings provide an external conflict, preventing her from getting what she desires and fulfilling her goals. Although for Lacie and those who rated her negatively, the consequence is not fatal, as opposed to “Hated in the Nation.” Yet, the ubiquity of this rating system creates a culture in which every person can be viewed as a commodity, and as numbers. Again, Tasha Robinson writes, “The script … turns social platforms' self-curation and validation-seeking into the backbone of a future society.” Those who opt into this culture may walk through life fearful of the consequences of any single interaction. Even then, those who exist outside the system are treated as inferior. In this culture, any interaction you ever have will affect you for the rest of your life. When you reach the rating of 0, there is no way (or it appears highly unlikely) to boost your rating back up.

More than any other television show currently airing, Black Mirror skillfully encapsulates our modern, digitized era. Brooker and his team craft often gut-wrenching narratives in which many facets of our culture and our relation to each other via technology, are magnified and taken to an extreme form. In an interview for Vogue by Patricia Garcia, Brooker says, “The technology is never the culprit in our stories. The technology is just allowing people to do terrible things to themselves or others.” Within episodes “The National Anthem,” “Hated in the Nation,” and “Nosedive,” the form of technology at the forefront of these narratives is social media - in the form, respectively, of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the unnamed ratings app in the final episode. These three narratives, when in conversation with each other, communicate our society’s addiction to social media, and the ways in which it affects our behavior - such as cyberbullying - and can distract us from things happening right under our noses. Furthermore, the distinction between spectator and culprit is distorted, leading the audience to question what it means to be vocal or silent, in the age of social media. None of these three stories are particularly uplifting ones - they might instead border on bittersweet. Rather, they are divisive and cautionary tales on a potential future, should our society continue down this road.

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Devan Davies-Wood is an undergraduate student at Lang College, The New School. He is majoring in Screen Studies.

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Garcia, Patricia. "Black Mirror Creator Charlie Brooker on What Really Happened at the End of “San Junipero." Vogue, 27 Oct. 2016. Web.

Wortham, Jenna. "'Black Mirror' and the Horrors and Delights of Technology." The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Jan. 2015. Web.

Robinson, Tasha. "Black Mirror's "Nosedive" is a vicious take on social media." The Verge. N.p., 24 Oct. 2016. Web.

Harvey, Giles. "The Speculative Dread of "Black Mirror." The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 17 Nov. 2016. Web.