By now the world is aware of the influence of social media on revolutions. Some people all too happily dubbed Tunisia the “Twitter Revolution.” In recent months however a more critical look — caused by Facebook’s and others own decisions — has revealed an unsightly side to social media.
Initially Facebook and Twitter were hailed as the great equalizers for people unable to access free and fair news elsewhere.
One big issue being raised is the validity and impartiality of the information provided on the sites. Both governments and their opponents have taken to Facebook and Twitter to spread false rumors and news about the other side. Last month, a story surfaced on Twitter that “a high level source in the Libyan Army said that the government forces were set to launch missiles with mustard gas on the city of Brega.” The story spread like wildfire through the Twittersphere. Soon dozens of Libyan activists were reporting that the attack was imminent. It never came.
This isn’t to say that these tweets weren’t started and passed along with good intentions. Nevertheless spreading information that proves false (and possibly creating a panic) is a dangerous game and also plays into the hands of regimes which jump on every opportunity to point out the lies. Did these activists follow up on the leads or merely retweet the news? Conversely, elements of the Syrian regime used twitter to propagate the disputed claim that 120 government troops had been killed by protesters. Likewise, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa of Bahrain took to Twitter in an attempt to portray a false calm in Bahrain during the midst of the Pearl Roundabout protests.
The most heinous violation of all however, were the actions of Tom MacMaster, a supposed activist who fabricated a fake story about “Amina,” a Gay activist in Syria who had been “nabbed” by authorities. The 40-year-old master's student admitted to the hoax but defended his actions claiming, “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground.” In response, Sami Hamwi an actual gay Syrian blogger, retaliated saying, “What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism.” Not only was this blatantly nefarious journalism picked up by the world’s press including CNN and Al Jazeera, it was also used to frame the Syrian regime.
Another growing fault of social media is its supposed impartiality. Mark Zuckerberg lists "openness, revolutions and information flow" as a few of his interests on Facebook. Apparently, such interests only apply to certain people and groups. After pressure from the Israeli government and possibly due its own company-wide political views, Facebook removed any posts promoting the Palestinian “Third Intifada.”
The original posting and fan page was almost exactly identical to the ones created for the revolution in Egypt. Regardless, one of the basic tenants of social media, one that had been so glorified, was violated as freedom of information was purposely restricted. Twitter has yet to actively regulate what it allows, although the company reserves the right to delete any tweets it deems unacceptable. Amazon.com also decided to remove some of its content after caving to pressure from conservative groups regarding its original decision to host the Wikileaks cables (Amazon has since been targeted by several hackers for the decision).
Lastly, not only is the accuracy of the information and the objectivity of the sites themselves of growing concern, but the safety of the users is also a troubling new worry.
After being caught off guard and almost toppled by the then-innocent social media powers, the Iranian regime has grown more technologically savvy. When demonstrations erupted this past January, the Iranian government was prepared, quickly nipping them in the bud before they had a chance to spread by using Facebook and Twitter against its users. Government officials are said to have followed users and organizers online, arresting them before damage could be done. In Bahrain, the relative small number of social media users allows the government to easily track them and has forced many into hiding. As one activist Mohammed A* claimed, “The government monitoring is so bad that we have taken to screaming from our rooftops as a way of continuing the revolution rather than go online. It’s too dangerous on Facebook and Twitter.”
There is no doubting the power of social media in promoting revolution. As witnessed in Egypt when the government decided to cut the internet and lose millions of dollars rather than allow organizers access to social media, Twitter and Facebook are still unstoppable forces when it comes to organizing inital phases of revolution.
Now months after the initial stages of the Arab Awakening the question is whether social media can sustain it.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons