Sunday, October 24, 2021

Going more than skin-deep with poverty porn

While poverty porn can raise awareness about those in real need of assistance, it is not enough to merely hand out aid at heavily publicised events, says analyst.

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It’s a common enough sight on social media: politicians and public figures signing huge cheques and handing over donations to the grateful poor, especially during times of disaster such as the perennial floods in the east coast and now more than ever as Covid-19 continues to hammer at the economy.

With technological advances and the increasing use of online platforms like Facebook and Instagram, sightings of so-called poverty porn are a dime a dozen although the term itself may come across as unfamiliar.

It is a tactic used to gain empathy and contributions by revealing the circumstances of the less fortunate in the hopes of achieving a goal such as selling newspapers, boosting charitable donations or increasing support for a particular cause.

It is categorised as a “porn” of sorts as it objectifies the poor, portraying them as objects dependent on the privileged for their continued sustenance while those who help are construed and celebrated as saviours, says Christopher Choong, an analyst from Khazanah Research Institute.

Classic examples of poverty porn include images of emaciated children with protruding rib cages extending their hands towards the camera.

Choong said the practice had existed for a long time but became amplified on social media when the pandemic began its trail of destruction across lives and livelihoods alike.

While poverty porn can satisfy some of the basic instincts of viewers, it does not highlight the structural and systematic factors at the heart of these conditions.

“Given the significantly higher number of people who have fallen into poverty and unemployment due to the pandemic, there are more now who require real and immediate assistance,” he told MalaysiaNow.

Citing as well the various lockdowns which he said had intensified the consumption of information on social media, he said such factors drive and accelerate poverty porn in society.

But while poverty porn can satisfy some of the basic instincts of viewers, he said it does not highlight the structural and systematic factors at the heart of these conditions.

He also spoke of delayed consequences when the identities of those in need are revealed, including stigmatisation of families and exposure to predatory behaviour.

In Malaysia, photos and footage of politicians engaging in poverty porn are often met with thousands of “likes” and positive comments, with social media users readily sharing the pictures or clips with their friends.

“We need to keep our politicians accountable to higher standards.”

This stands in stark contrast with the reception of such images in the West, where people often criticise the act because of the very nature of what it intends to achieve.

Choong predicted that politicians would indulge even more in such acts as the impending general election draws near in order to draw public sympathy and so secure the support of the electorate.

But he warned that this alone would be unacceptable, adding that such practices should be called out as and when they occur.

“We need to keep our politicians accountable to higher standards, that is what kind of policies they are championing to address the root causes of poverty, unemployment, inequalities and other forms of vulnerabilities, beyond the immediate help rendered.”

He said this manner of accountability was not to devalue the immediate and short-term assistance given.

“Politicians, when voted into office, are the ones who have the power to make changes at the policy and structural level.”

This, for him, is the real goal.

He also warned against exploiting the poor, urging public figures to consider their actual purpose in publicising the act of giving.

“Are the identities of the poor protected and if not, what is the evidence that genuine consent has been obtained?”

At the end of the day, he said, there are those who are well-intentioned and there are those who are deliberately opportunistic.

“If a well-intentioned person knows about the harmful effects of poverty porn and continues to indulge in it, then it raises a red flag for me,” he added.

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