During the latest round of the long and seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine, and after following closely the news, links, tweets, posts, etc. that one could find mainly in Facebook and Twitter, my old concern about the role that Social Media is playing beyond its social-fun aspect, in terms of affecting the way we inform ourselves, crawled back inevitably to my mind.

Since the irruption of social media in our lives, there has been ample talk about the democratization of the information, and the empowerment of all of us as civilians. I believe that the praise is well deserved in many aspects, and it is difficult to question the positive role it has played in connecting people and allowing for a free, fast, and high volume of information flow. Getting information has never been easier, but at the same time, in my opinion, never has been harder to differentiate between real versus fake, ill-intentioned posts, news, etc.

Also the fact that anyone of us can, legitimately, post in social media, has opened a new outlet for people to misinform, or to express potentially dangerous ideas, that can affect different groups in our society. Don’t get me wrong, I value and see as a key right the freedom of speech that we have in many countries, but that doesn’t mean it is not important to analyze the potential negative effects of these new technologies.

The News/Media industry has been heavily disrupted by the strong growth of social media and technology in general. Print media is suffering, and has had to make a difficult transition towards mobile platforms. TV news outlets have maybe suffered somewhat to a lesser extent, but still have had to rethink their business models, incorporating technology like online videos, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages. Even though News/Media companies have always been subject to editorial lines that may come from the owners or the Editor in Chief, or from the own biases that the journalists bring with them, it was easier to trace back where the information was coming from, and from whom I was getting it. This is getting harder, considering the amount of content we receive, and from so many different outlets/sources/users.

Seeing the glass half-full, the fact that social media enabled people in countries like Iran in 2009 with the elections protests1, Egypt in 2011 with the social uprising against Mubarak2, and Venezuela in the 2012 presidential elections3 to express freely, was a significant event, that had bigger implications than everyone might have expected. Even though if it was for a short period of time (in Iran4 and Egypt5 they blocked the use of Twitter and social media in general), enabled people to express their opinions and share them with the rest of the world, generating awareness of their realities. It was one of the first times I can remember seeing relevant events “live” through the eyes of the population of a country, with no filters. Especially considering the low levels of freedom of the press in these particular countries (Egypt ranks 159/180, Iran 173/180, and Venezuela 116/180 in terms of freedom of the press worldwide6), the value generated by social media is even greater.

However, the empty half of the glass shows a somewhat grimmer view. During the latest Israel-Palestine outburst I saw first hand how people from both sides where almost without even reviewing their sources, posting links to old, fake, or non-accurate pictures7, news, and videos that supported their opinions. Worst, I saw how two dear friends, one with Jewish roots and one with Palestinian roots, created a Facebook group trying to unite both communities back in Chile, only to get severe backlash from people with radical views from both sides. They received personal threats, which ultimately led to closing the group, even if this aggressiveness came from a very small group. Social media provided the perfect outlet for people to express discriminatory/racist/xenophobic views against people from Israel, Palestine, or even towards the local communities associated with both places. Comment boxes in news outlets were dominated by irrational, insulting comments. People from both communities suffered virtual and real life, physical attacks. The Arab School of Santiago, Chile suffered from graffiti’s on their walls, and Jewish families were attacked in the streets and at their homes. One is left wandering, especially comparing with previous outbursts of the conflict like in 2008 and 2012 did social media amplify the impact of this international conflict outside their borders? Did social media actually played a role of informing in an unbiased way, or did it only polarized and confronted communities that are thousands of miles away from the point of origin? What effect did social media play in the general population that is not part of these two communities in shaping their views? Is social media simply enabling people hiding behind a computer express views that they don’t dare to express publicly, sometimes hiding behind an alias? I believe the jury is still out on these questions, and I don’t have the answer either.

There are reports suggesting that social media in general, but particularly a YouTube video, played a relevant role in the deaths of the US personnel of the embassy in Libya8 in 2012. Even if the video wasn’t the main cause, the fact that it is in the discussion as a possible enabler of a tragic event, validates the idea of at least making these questions.

If social media is enabling democratization and empowerment, one could think that the shift in power about informing would also shift the sense of responsibility towards the now empowered civilian population. However this is not necessarily happening. Maybe it has to do with the fact that this may be an industry still in its infancy. Is it fair to put the blame on the people that are posting only? Or should the companies providing the outlets take more responsibility? I believe both parties have to be more responsible, however as an example Facebook9, Twitter10, and YouTube11 argue they are not liable for the potential defamatory content posted in their sites. Even though we as users can report content that seems inappropriate, it means putting the burden on the user base. Considering these are successful businesses, where for example Facebook in terms of members would be the 3rd largest country in the world, shouldn’t they approach this in a proactive way? Hiding behind the argument that they are mere platforms and not publishers12 might serve them well for now, but I strongly believe they should try to analyze the ramifications and impact their networks have worldwide, and take a more proactive approach as they keep on growing in relevance and in members.  This decision might impact their business models, and imply investments in different areas, but this doesn’t mean it is something they should or can ignore forever.

Referenced sources:

  1. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jun/16/irans-twitter-revolution/
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/books/review/how-an-egyptian-revolution-began-on-facebook.html?pagewanted=all
  3. http://www.academia.edu/6028772/GRINEVALD-The_Twitter_Effect_in_the_2012_Venezuelan_Presidential_Elections
  4. http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=anh.uW3gNZp
  5. http://techcrunch.com/2011/01/25/twitter-blocked-egypt/
  6. http://rsf.org/index2014/en-index2014.php
  7. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-28198622
  8. http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2012/09/12/how-could-chris-stevens-die-because-youtube-clip/Ex92OLF0qCwlXwa5nYV7fI/story.html & http://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-lam/social-media-middle-east-protests-_b_1881827.html
  9. https://www.facebook.com/legal/terms
  10. https://twitter.com/tos
  11. https://www.youtube.com/static?gl=CA&template=terms
  12. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jul/29/twitter-urged-responsible-online-abuse

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