In the same way that social media can make world news out of small miracles, it can also transform a regional conflict into a world war.
I remember watching the Gulf War on CNN. I had just moved to New York where 24-hour news was already well entrenched, and I spent days glued to live coverage of Operation Desert Storm.
I had never seen anything like it before. Using satellite technology, camera-equipped weaponry, and infrared photography, CNN broadcast dramatic images of tracer fire illuminating the night sky over Baghdad and missiles destroying their targets. It was like watching a Hollywood movie. Although I was a South African living in New York, the spectacle of war created by CNN made it difficult not to become an American patriot.
Twenty years later, war continues to rage in the Middle East but we are now experiencing it in a whole new way. This time the message is not being controlled by major media corporations, but by millions of ordinary people shouting their personal opinions across Facebook and Twitter. While this may seem like a more democratic way to cover the conflict, social media is becoming a giant amplifier for the fear and hate that is fuelling the conflict in Gaza.
This war was bad enough when it involved just the Israelis and the Palestinians, but now, thanks to the immediacy and ubiquity of social media, it has begun to spread across the planet, causing millions to “unfollow”, “unfriend”, disavow and generally turn against their colleagues, family members, and closest friends. Ideological skirmishes are breaking out in every corner of cyberspace, fuelling the animosity, anger and momentum of the conflict. I scroll through the battlefield that my newsfeed has become, and I fear that the democratisation of media has created a cacophony of dissenting voices that could tear our world apart.
Amplified through the lens of social media, the tiny Gaza strip has expanded to consume our global psyche, becoming a kind of “liquid war” that is spreading to every corner of the globe. Like the Cold War, this liquid war is polarising the world, creating enemies out of complete strangers, spawning confrontation and threatening to thrust the entire planet into war.
Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” While it is true that we can not stand idly by and watch people kill each other, by broadcasting our opinions on a conflict that most of us do not fully understand, we are becoming complicit in it, enabling it to grow and spread; fuelling the hostility rather than contributing to a solution.
I have always believed in the egalitarian nature of the Internet. I firmly support the democratisation of media, and celebrate the rise of a digitally empowered citizenry … But with this power comes commensurate responsibility. We are no longer passive consumers of mass media. We are the creators and disseminators of popular culture, and it falls to us to modulate the conversation.
Exacerbating the conflict
Using Facebook or Twitter as a soapbox to broadcast your personal opinion about the war will only serve to exacerbate the conflict. Every tweet, every post made in defence of one side or the other, is an ideological missile launched into the fray. And as we have seen from this bloody war in Gaza, every missile begets another. War breeds war. Animosity breeds animosity. For every pro-Palestinian post, there are a hundred pro-Israeli responses – for every anti-Israeli tweet there are as many anti-Hamas retweets.
Isn’t it time that we called a cease-fire? Growing up we were taught that the more we talk about an issue, the more likely we are to resolve it. But the incessant buzz ringing in my ears is forcing me to question this conventional wisdom. I believe that social media has the power to amplify important issues. I was enthralled by the role it played in the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. I was impressed by the support that the Joseph Kony video managed to drum-up from people who generally don’t give a damn about what happens in Africa. But what I also learned from the Kony case study was that people weren’t only motivated by the issue at hand. They were also motivated by their own newfound power.
Not long ago there was a rainbow that went viral … In the same way that social media can make world news out of small miracles, it can also transform a regional conflict into a world war. The interconnected nature of our modern mediascape isn’t necessarily a force for good; it is simply a mirror that reflects and magnifies our collective psyche. If we focus it on the right things, we can enhance our ability to solve problems and make the world a better place. But if we aim its awesome power at our dark shadow, we may just plunge the world into blackness.
Jason Xenopoulos is the chief executive of Native VML.