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“Orange Is the New Black” and the Disruptive Force of Digital Communications

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Digital communications has had a profound effect on society. The combined trio of the Internet, social media and mobile technologies has been a democratizing force. These technologies give a megaphone to the masses and provide a formidable counterweight to the media and corporate public relations.

The disruptive force of digital communications played an important role in Orange Is the New Black. In season 5 of the popular Netflix series, the female inmates riot and takeover Litchfield Penitentiary, which leads to a drawn out hostage crisis. Though the prison’s dehumanizing conditions were a precursor to the crisis, what’s noticeable to me is how the women successfully used digital communications to change the narrative.

Below are a few examples of how digital communications shaped the plot of season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.

Justice for Poussey

Following the women’s takeover of Litchfield, the prison’s corporate owners (MCC) tried to downplay the incident. This strategy is disrupted, however, when the women led by Taystee (Danielle Brooks) use a cellphone to post their demands on social media. These demands include justice for Poussey, an inmate who was killed by a correctional officer. The women’s use of social media jams MCC’s corporate narrative and starts to slowly capture the attention of the media.

In many ways, season 5 of Orange Is the New Black reflects how modern-day social movements use disruptive digital communications to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information, such as the media and large corporations. Similar to the fictional Litchfield, modern-day activists have also used social media to bypass the media and corporate public relations. The Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, used a combination of high-profile events and social media tactics to capture the public’s attention. In addition, Occupy protesters successfully used variations of the #occupy hashtag on Twitter to coordinate amongst themselves.

CO Piscatella gets caught on camera

A major turning point occurs near the end of the season 5 when an inmate uses a cellphone to secretly film the sadistic correctional officer Piscatella torturing the inmate Red Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew). The video was narrative changing and highlighted the injustice at Litchfield. The video received hundreds of thousands of views after it was uploaded to YouTube. (Prior to the video being uploaded, CO Piscatella thought he could get away with abusing inmates.)

Season 5 displayed the importance of mobile technologies and how these devices can transform average citizens into reporters. People can now film acts of injustice at a moment’s notice. They can upload these videos to social networks like Facebook and Twitter, or post them on video platforms like YouTube.

Mobile devices and the videos they produce have fuelled many modern social movements. For example, if not for cellphone videos, the tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Philando Castille and Walter Scott at the hands of police may have gone unnoticed by the media.

Maritza and Marisol’s YouTube channel

An interesting subplot in season 5 takes place when two of the inmates, Maritza (Dianne Guerrero) and Marisol (Jackie Cruz), take advantage of the crisis to create their own YouTube channel. The two friends used their vlog to highlight their prison beauty tips and secrets. Their YouTube channel becomes widely successful and they attract tens of thousands of followers, despite their being in prison.

Martiza and Marisol’s example is a reflection of how many people in the real world use digital communications to disrupt the status quo. In the past, if someone wanted to be an artist, journalist or public intellectual they would have to first be granted access by one of the traditional gatekeepers of information, such as the media, academic institutions and music labels. But with digital communications, people can now bypass these gatekeepers and create their own blogs, YouTube channels and podcasts. Many of the traditional gatekeepers are struggling to survive to adapt as a result.

Those of us who understand digital communications have a big advantage

Modern communication technologies have disrupted the media and corporate public relations to change for the better. Social media forces the media to cover news that it may not have covered in the past. Social media has also forced corporations – like MCC of Orange Is the New Black – to be transparent with and engage stakeholders.

Like the women of Litchfield, those of us who best understand digital communications are at a tremendous advantage.

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John Gilson