By now, we know the story all too well – the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire to protest an autocratic regime, and became a catalyst and an icon of his country’s revolution. The momentous months and years that followed, when regime after regime was ousted by its citizen movements, one by one intensifying their protests and demanding change. The unrest, the series of protests, the toppled autocrats would later become known as the Arab Spring. A reason to update the history books – but not merely to record what had happened. The speed by which protests appeared to trigger responses in neighboring countries begged the question how it had even been possible. The answer seemed, and to some extent, was simple.
The year was 2011, and social media platforms had rapidly grown prevalent as a way to express discontent, anger and disenfranchisement towards oppressive regimes in Northern Africa. Social media provided a tool to organize protests and gather crowds in a virtual setting before displaying discontent, in a physical form. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter encouraged conversations, and recorded progress. They facilitated interaction and informally broadcasted results. Crucially, this form of communication and organization mobilized immense numbers of people, circumventing any state-run media outlets. Social media had, for many, become arms in conflict, and for many, it represented a multi-layered sense of liberation.
Today we see a multifaceted story arch, where social media use in war and conflict is no longer solely perceived as a rosy red tool of liberation. Of course, much of this more nuanced perception is down to the role such platforms have had in the power vacuums following the Arab Spring. ISIS has famously operated much of its propaganda machinery through the very same platforms that have arguably provided so many with the power of collectively liberating themselves from oppressionist ideas and regimes. A weapon, in the wrong hands, still remains a weapon – and a powerful one at that.
At the same time, many question the scale of the effect the social media propaganda has had in reality. While the fear has been that unregulated social media inadvertently creates a pathway to radicalization and recruitment of potential fighters for terrorist groups like ISIS. This picture may be further tarnished by fearmongering than supported by truth. It has been argued that ISIS fighters don’t become fighters because they have access to filmed atrocities and propaganda on Twitter – but rather, because they possess the agency and resources to turn propaganda into action. Radical activity online does not necessarily have to turn into real action, and may even be a substitute for action. However, the power of spreading easily-consumable ideas comes with increased responsibility.
It is not just in the Arab world where the idea of weaponization of social media has gained momentum. Unregulated social media posts have had an immense impact on the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, where the Muslim minority is currently fleeing the western Burmese Rakhine state due to military persecution – most of these refugees seeking protection in neighboring Bangladesh. Inflammatory, violent and graphic posts about the Rohingya people have been spread on Facebook, a platform used by 18 million active users in Myanmar. Few of these users can be said to be media literate enough to practice source criticism. Most of them use the terms ‘internet’ and ‘Facebook’ interchangeably. In short, the posts have fuelled and exacerbated an already horrific tragedy.
Despite being warned of the rapidly spreading hate speech as early as in 2013, Facebook has been slow in its response, citing translation issues and understaffing as reasons. Some accounts have since been deleted, but the inflammatory posts have proven to have a long afterlife on other sites and platforms. That social media giants like Facebook have not taken the necessary steps to gain the cultural literacy and language comprehension needed to prevent this type of hate speech “wildfire” is appalling.
Seven years down the line from the Arab Spring, the link between social media and conflict has undoubtedly lost its rosy shine. In the Rohingya crisis, Facebook has been missing in action. History books will remember the Arab Spring as a revolution carried by young people with access to powerful social networks, influencing real change in real time. Current conflicts, if remembered, will bear the searing mark of the power of negligent social media companies and technology misuse.