February 7, 2011

Social Media: A Double-Edged Sword

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January 25, 2011. Tens of thousands are taking to the streets, to Tahrir Square. They are fighting through rubber bullets, tear gas, and concussion grenades. They are flipping over a police car and setting it on fire. They are tearing up a large portrait of Mubarak. And as they do, they take pictures with their cellphones. They are cheering. Drivers are stopping on the bridge, chanting. Young men are recording the protests on their cellphone cameras while middle-aged women drape themselves in flags of the opposition party.

It started with a Facebook page for the “Day of Revolution,” an event organized by opposition groups that attracted more than 90,000 sign-ups. Since then, protesters have used social media to help coordinate their cause and gain international support. Throughout the Egyptian protests, the press has celebrated the role played by such media sites as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Facebook is toppling a decades-long dictatorship. This is the Facebook Revolution, they say. Just as Iran’s was the Twitter Revolution….

June 13, 2009. Early Saturday morning. Clashes are breaking out in the streets between police and protest groups. Down with the dictator, they are chanting. Give us our votes back, they are crying. The police are storming the headquarters of the Iran Participation Front. They are attacking shops, banks, and government offices. They are blocking the streets with parked cars, setting trash cans on fire. They are tweeting the numbers of the dead. Tweeting about tear gas, police batons, rocks. Uploading pictures of men lying face-down in their own blood. It was a fraud, they tweet.

But Iran’s Twitter Revolution is a cautionary tale, as The New York Times detailed last week in an article discussing web tools and social change. In the aftermath of the Iranian protests, police used social media to locate and arrest activists, post wanted photos of unidentified demonstrators, and create an online surveillance center. Elsewhere, governments use social media to create a pro-government vibe or to censor unwanted news.

Social media is a double-edged sword. One equally wielded by autocrats and activists. Its role in helping activists organize and coordinate has been undeniable. So too has its role in creating a global watchdog community and increasing free speech. However, the information that flows through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is a tool for anyone, not just activists. The more we use these sites, the more information is out there for either side. The key question is who controls the information, who tilts it and in which direction. Because once something enters the web, it lacks context. There is always distortion….

It started with Facebook and YouTube….

December 17, 2010. A young fruit-and-vegetable peddlar named Mohammed Bouazizi is arguing with a policewoman. Not much is known about the argument. How it started. What it was about. Who provoked whom. But it ends with young Bouazizi setting himself on fire in front of a government building, his self-immolation a protest against a 53-year Tunisian dictatorship. Furious, Bouazizi’s family crowds outside the building, demanding to speak to government officials. Shaking the gates, they are joined by others protesting against the regime, armed with cell phones. Soon, images make their way onto Facebook, then are picked up by a TV network. Ten days later, the 53-year Arab dictatorship has crumbled.

It started with Facebook, which transformed a common argument in the marketplace into a cry for revolution. But somewhere along that transformation, information was lost. What was the fight about? Who started it? And new information was added in its place. The policewoman hit Bouazizi, some claimed. He was a university student just like us so we must stick up for him, they wrote. Only, there was never any factual evidence for either of these claims. Rumors morphed into facts. Speculation took on an aura of truth. And somewhere along the way, a 53-year Arab dictatorship crumbled — and with it, our journalistic standards.

In an age when social media topples dictatorships and reveals electoral fraud, we have no choice but to embrace social media as a tool for social change, a tool of democracy. At the same time, we need to sift fact from fiction and truth from distortion. In using social media, we must apply our own rigorous journalistic standards. Feeding the rumor mill and crowding these sites with mundane passing thoughts only weakens its legitimacy. Furthermore, we must sharpen our own tools for analyzing social media. For fact-checking. For questioning sources and context. To ground our own claims in legitimacy, we cannot jump too quickly to conclusions from social media sites without backing these conclusions in journalistic integrity. The Obama administration’s gaffe in firing Shirley Sherrod was one such example of how social media can backfire when not checked.

New technology is a huge responsibility. If we do not keep pace with it, I am sure Ahmadinejad will.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg