It’s fair to say that my last article got a lot more attention than I was expecting. I just came across this piece from the Beirut Spring blog which raises some of the criticisms and concerns about it, and thought it worth trying to clarify some of my arguments. My response is below:
I just came across your blog regarding my article and thought I would take my opportunity to respond to some of your points. Better late than never I suppose! Let’s get stuck in:
I’d first like to point out that no, I don’t think the ‘battle for the narrative is more dangerous than the battle on the streets’. Neither do I think that the problems of people’s histrionics on twitter and facebook are the ‘biggest problem’ as you suggest I do. But even as side-issues to Tripoli’s (and Lebanon’s) woes last month I think they are deserving of comment. I would agree with you that these platforms can allow a way for people to release steam and discuss politics. This is a vital aspect of democracy, and wherever people are using social media to debate views and open dialogue way this should be applauded. But the issue I was seeking to address is more the problem of people taking what they have seen online and on twitter as ‘truth’, and the problems of deliberate and accidental misinformation in spreading fear and discord.
Take the recent trouble up at Nahr el Bared as an example – at the time twitter was acting as a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’, meaning that after a few hours the truth (clashes between Palestinian youth and Lebanese Army after a funeral leaving one killed and several injured) had become a ‘Palestinian youth uprising in Lebanon’ (with death tolls above 10) in the eyes of some on twitter. Others had reported that the Lebanese army had started firing on the funeral precession. I’m sure you can see how this might be a problem – the lack of fact-checking, and people’s willingness to spread rumour can increase fear and feelings of urgency, causing people to get restless and potentially feed into cycles of violence. I’m not suggesting that twitter and facebook cause violence, or even that they are the major contributor – but I would say that they can act as a force multiplier, and help limited clashes metastasise unnecessarily. Thankfully the violence in Nahr el Bared soon calmed down, but in sensitive events where tensions run high, a rumour can be a dangerous thing. You raised a good example of the Rwandan genocide, so here’s a quote regarding the events leading up the genocide from this history of the country:
“In this mood ethnic violence increases steadily, and is often ratchetted up a sudden notch – as when, in March 1992, Radio Rwanda spreads a deliberately false rumour that a Tutsi plot to massacre Hutus has been discovered.”
I’d also like to point out that my article was not suggesting that facebook and twitter are flat out forces for disharmony, though they run the risk of being used this way – the article is rather a response to the excessively glowing report that social media has received over the last year, certainly with regards to its use as a vector for political change. I was trying to point out that twitter is just an extension of people’s psychology and can be used for antisocial as much as pro-social ends. It can be a powerful tool to help people mobilise protest and bring change and progress, but there are plenty of messages of hatred spread on there too. These things might ‘balance out’ over time, but in times of fear or crisis, the demonising voices are often much louder.
I think the most important thing to point out is that I do not, in any way, endorse censorship. That was not the focus of my article (or mentioned anywhere in it), but I do believe that there problems exist for social media and there are things we can do to help this. Social media and the internet more widely are vast new sources of news and information that we, as human beings, are still learning to get to grips with even decades after their inception. The fact is that the sheer volume of information that is available means that entirely new skills are needed to sort fact from fiction.
(I should also point out that the suggestion by one of your readers that I somehow think that there are some cultures that are not ‘ready’ for social media is pretty dreadful mis-reading of my article. The truth is that this is a problem everywhere – and these problems of social media were just as evident in the London riots of last year, for example. Here’s a great interactive piece on that from the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/interactive/2011/dec/07/london-riots-twitter)
I seem to remember a study in the UK which found that young people believed that google ranked results by accuracy – a basic mistake, but it shows a need for better internet literacy. I therefore don’t argue for ‘self-restraint’ so much as better teaching of critical thinking and analytical skills (in schools) to help everyone be able to fact-check what they find online. I don’t want to hammer this point too much (but it’s easy to be misinterpreted as having some sort of colonialist agenda when working abroad!) but I believe these skills are necessary absolutely everywhere as we run to catch up with sweeping technological and communications change. Furthermore, with effort I believe it would be possible to build a norm of healthy scepticism or fact-checking in Twitter etc. Some people’s attempts to get tweeters to put #TBC on unconfirmed rumours during some of the clashes in May and June are a great example of this, and should be encouraged.
One other point (from one of your readers) re: internet penetration. I’d respond that not everyone needs to be online for social media rumours to have a negative effect. The nature of offline social networks means it will only take one person connected to twitter/facebook to spread those rumours to the rest of their cluster. We all do this, everywhere – think about any conversation where you tell a group of friends about something you read online and it sparks up conversation on some political issue. I’ve seen the process at work here up in Beddawi too – it’s common for one person to show everyone else in a café some picture from Syria that got posted on facebook. Certainly tends to start some lively political discussions.
Anyway, I hope this clears up some of my thinking. As your readers have pointed out, I’m certainly no journalist! There were lots of thoughts to get into 500-ish words and I’m eager to continue fleshing them out through dialogue. I would say, again in response to your readers, that I have been living in Jabal Beddawi, on the outskirts of Tripoli, for six months working for a local NGO. My background is as a researcher focusing on, among other things, political violence and (offline) social networks. I can’t pretend to have learned enough in my time here to comment with any great authority on Lebanese society or politics, and so my writing is simply a reflection on my observations since I’ve been here. I’m eager to keep learning though, so please keep the dialogue up!