Doc Power and Impact

It’s no secret that The Viral Media Lab is a fan of social change documentaries. We’ve featured posts on feature films with impact in recent weeks, including Josh Fox’s Gasland and Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, a window on the Chinese Artist and Free Speech Activist. A bonus: Ai recently retweeted our link to an upcoming feature premiering this week at The Tribeca Film Festival:


While documentaries have always had a place in social critique, anthropological studies and awareness-raising for human rights, animal rights, environmental issues and more, it is only in the past ten years, with the success of blockbusters (and often Academy or Emmy Award winners) like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004, Michael Moore) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006, Davis Guggenheim), which, respectively, grossed over $119 and $50 million globally, this form of storytelling has reached a new era of influence. Michael Moore’s other films, Bowling for Columbine (2002, $21 million+), Sicko (2007, $24 million+) and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009, 14 million+), join Fahrenheit 9/11 in the top 15 grossing documentaries of all time.

Part of this has to do with social media, which has assisted in the viral lift from word-of-mouth marketing for films which traditionally lacked huge marketing budgets. Social media toolsets have also allowed social cause media to join forces with non-profits who champion their messages in strategic partnerships that help crowdsource awareness. In Gasland‘s case, teaming up with environmental organizations like and offshoots of the Occupy movement has proven pivotal to the impact of the anti-fracking movement.

In addition, with Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites, films which used to spend years in incremental foundation fundraising before hitting the screens, now find support in keeping with the timeliness of their subject matter, meaning that real-time influence has expanded.

The Harmony Institute is launching a study of media impact, ImpactSpace, later this year, which includes interactive mapping of influence-pathways to public discourse and memes generated by social cause documentaries.

This past year marked the unexpected influence of Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that debuted at Sundance, about killer whales in captivity. Its success and media buzz has evoked a public backlash against SeaWorld.

From the Blackfish website:

Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry.

Social media saturation campaigns are now built into the communications plans of film launches, creating waves of buzz as the films begin to roll out at film festival premieres.

What documentaries have impacted you most recently? Do you see documentaries frequently? What do you think is the role of social media in the expansion of this form of storytelling?

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  1. Ben

    I have always thought that documentary as a form of expression towards social change is the most clear-cut way to get the message and the proof of that message through media. For a Documentary filmmaker to be successful they should first have a deep compulsion for creating a buzz around a subject that they feel fed up over.

    Since the proof that social media platforms do assist in getting messages out to the public, together they assist in a more lasting effect on the message. I am a member of, which was started to change the gender stereotypes and utilize media and film to exemplify this. Here is their digital video on gender narratives. (

    Around the time of this film’s release The representation project sent email blasts and posts on social media platforms and created various billboards to push the film. Since it’s release in 2011 there have been more and more documentaries that follow their steps. Their role assists in seeing whether or not people respond and assists in marketing research on the subject matter. It also simply raises awareness on the issues.

  2. Kristin

    I thought Weiwei’s Never Sorry and Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, both of which I had to watch recently for classes (including this one, obviously), were incredibly touching and poignant. Although a huge fan of Weiwei’s, I had never seen Never Sorry, and it had been a few years since the last time I had viewed Fahrenheit 9/11. What was interesting about re-watching Moore’s work was that it still packed the same punch it did the first time I saw it; I believe that speaks volumes to the actual psychological velocity that a film can have. For this reason alone, I will always helm documentaries as some of the most important and paramount examples of what can spur social and/or political change. Also for this reason, I’m an avid (particularly independent) documentary watcher; to be informed is one of the most powerful things an individual can be.

    I’ve learned specifically about some documentaries though social media, whether through their personal pages or the retweeting, instagramming, or facebooking by others. Just as in everything else, its speeds can be greatly increased by awareness, and what better way to make a public aware by one of the most wide-reaching and popular outlets possible?

  3. Evyenia Constantine

    Documentaries are invaluable in terms of getting information to people who might not have previous awareness prior to viewing. I watch documentaries about issues that are important to me, but I also try to keep an open mind while watching them. One documentary that I recently watched was “In Organic we Trust”. Here is a link to the website:

    This documentary is about the benefits of not only eating organic foods, but the importance of city food gardens where people who might not have awareness or access to organic food can grow their own. What I liked about it was the personal profiles of volunteers in the city garden programs, and the people who are leading healthier lives because of it.

    I did watch “Blackfish” earlier this year when it aired on CNN, and was moved to tears. I remember growing up, my mother would take me whale watching in the Atlantic Ocean, but she never took me or my siblings to Seaworld. I asked her about this after I had watched the documentary and she said she didn’t want us to experience the animals in captivity, but rather in their own environment, even if that meant we didn’t get as full a view of them. It was important to her that we see them free and in the wild, and after watching the film, not only did I understand, I was very grateful.

  4. Emily Spierer

    I have always loved watching documentaries and think that they are a great medium to raise awareness and provide a voice for a number of different issues within society. Additionally, I think that documentaries in general are a great tool for individuals to educate themselves about different topics that interest them. Overall, documentaries have the ability to teach people about all different kinds of subjects and issues, enhancing people’s knowledge on various levels. Recently, I watched the documentary film Blackfish, which really changed my perspective about SeaWorld, as I had no prior knowledge about the harsh treatment of the wales in SeaWorld specifically. I was shocked that I hadn’t heard about the SeaWorld controversy before watching the film, which further emphasizes the ability of documentaries to truly exposed the world to different issues and problems that might otherwise go unnoticed. Documentaries have an amazing ability to expose individuals to different subjects and issues within society, often at a very intimate and personal level, due to the medium of film. Especially with the influence of social media today, documentaries have the ability to capture such a wide audience, which can further proliferate as people continue to talk about, and share information and content regarding different documentaries on various platforms. Our culture has become much more connected as a result of social media and the Internet, and I think that documentaries have gained a new role, influence, and ability to implement change within our culture as a result.

  5. Priyanka Paul

    I believe documentaries are a great way of portraying social causes and incidents, if made well. A well made documentary film has the power to reach millions and impact them in ways that pushes them to fight for causes around the world. A cause can be powerful on its own but if it is portrayed in a way that connects to the hearts of its audience, it was inspire and motivate people to feel for issues they did not care much about before. I think documentaries are also a great form of education. They can give knowledge about many issues to millions of people around the world in great detail and in ways that people will actually pay attention to. Documentaries have the power to change the perceptions of so many people and are a great change from just entertainment to films that inspire us to get involved and be more than just a silent watcher sitting on a sofa. Such films expose watchers to real-life situations that can give people a deeper understanding of issues like, feminism, arts, power, wars, etc. I have has the opportunity to watch some great documentaries through this class including ‘Miss Representation,’ ‘Blackfish,’ and ‘Ai Weiwei, Never Sorry,’ and I would definitely recommend all these films because they will change the way you think about a lot of things. I very much agree that social media helps these films reach more and more people around the world. If 10 people enjoy a film and are moved by it they will spread it out to a 100 more and this cycle carries on until millions of people have watched a film and spoken about it. And all of this starts from those film makers who wake up wanting to change the world through the power of art and cinema. These film makers are the bridge to the future and the new generation. There is a belief that film makers who make low budget documentaries will not do well however I disagree because I think those film makers are the ones that change lives and the way things are done in the world. They are the ones laying the base to the way our society will think in the future.

  6. SeungMi Kim

    I strongly believe that documentaries are such powerful medium that completely impact on society. As documentaries explore specific issues based on certain aspects of reality or historical records, they teach and educate people about various sorts of issues based on specific interests that happen in the society around the globe. I just finished watching a documentary film called Miss Representation, which was one from the list that Kathleen gave us for the documentary week. This remarkable documentary directed by Jennifer Sebol Newsome completely impacted me with seriousness of the problem that I used to be always aware of.
    I often enjoy watching a Korean documentary called, “The Its Know”, which investigates certain topics of interests including crimes, political issues, etc. that happen all around the world, but mainly focusing on Korea. I think those sorts of documentaries are completely helpful and interesting to watch since they deliver messages that are important, often problematic and controversial for the certain period of time with facts of reality. Watching such documentaries about topics that I am interested in and aware of teaches me about those areas in depth.
    I think social media including documentary, film, Internet, etc. plays such an essential role in spreading out certain area of knowledge and information to people around the world with the fact that we all are hugely exposed to social media forms nowadays; therefore, those powerful mediums help raise awareness of particular issues in society and take essential approach to solution to certain problems.

  7. Deisy

    I love watching documentaries! Lately I’ve seen many including: Blackfish, Fahrenheit 9/11, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, I Am, Inequality For All, Inside Job, and many more.

    I think the reason these documentaries have impacted me so much is because they explain and make me understand things that I have little knowledge of. Before Blackfish, I had no idea of what SeaWorld was doing! Now, I can say, my eyes were opened by this documentary. Without it I would’ve probably never known about how much abuse these animals get.

    I think the social media plays a huge role because it helps people share their opinions before, during and after watching the documentary. Many of the reasons why I watch a certain documentary is because my friends tweet about it or I see an article on Facebook about it. Social media helps to form a conversation AND to continue spreading the word.

  8. Paloma Urquijo Zobel

    I think we are living in a time where people are taking bigger risks and bringing amazing stories to the public. The fact that people are even using iPhones to film parts of major productions shows us just how far technology has come and how these tools have become easy to access for anyone that has a good story to tell. I remember watching searching for Sugarman for the first time and the huge impact that had on me. I think if the stories are told right they can have a huge impact on society a perfect example being blackfish. I posted some articles on my blog showing the decline in sales at Sea World since the movie came out showing the power and impact these documentaries can have.

  9. Juyeon Jung

    Recently, I watched The Queen of Versailles, and while I watched the film, I could have time to think about how things can be described effectively in many different ways. The documentary film talked about the couple building a huge mansion but all of sudden, they had to face their life with not enough money because of the economic crisis. Honestly, I am not a documentary person, but I think it has power to raise awareness for many issues and topics that people are not normally aware of. For millions of people, documentary film is one of the impactful mediums to give them motivations, inspirations and many different feelings. Some people watch them on purpose or some people just watch for fun. (I think that’s good unless they don’t feel anything even after they watch those kinds of films.) In the society we live now, many forms of social media can be easily reached to people all over the world, and documentaries are good to deliver specific messages and let people know what is happening in the world.

  10. Yoon Hee Song

    I think documentaries have great impact on society because they always teach people on certain topic and issue that people never knew about. I like to watch documentaries because they are really helpful in various ways to talk about political, social, and historical problems. Even though they deal with heavy subjects, they try to reveal the truth behind some issues. Although Fahrenheit 911 was released long time ago, I watched it recently because I usually watch Korean documentaries. The argument they are claiming was really frightening because they talk about conspiracy theory on former president, George W. Bush. It was really intriguing because it taught me something that I never knew. I think documentaries really help people to raise awareness about certain issue and problem because people learn new things by watching it. The role of social media is very significant because they unfold the story and tell it to the world; They are providing society the rights to know.


    I have recently watched “The Queen of Versailles”, it impacted me how humans grow so accustom to everything and we start to take everything for granted, not paying and appreciating the great things that we have or are able to do.
    More and more I have been developing a taste for documentaries and I am starting to look for them, I think that the type of documentaries that are being made now a days are much more approachable and the audience doesn’t feel intimidated by it.
    Social media has definitely made documentaries reach bigger audiences than ever before as when someone watches something which resonates with them, they are likely to share it with their friends and family. Also I think that many more stories are going to come to light due to this ‘over sharing’ as documentary makers might find stories to tell through different social media platforms.

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