Social media and terrorism

Amina Khairy
Sunday 24 Mar 2019

Last week’s massacre of people praying in a New Zealand mosque has raised questions about the responsibility of social networks in live-streaming such horrendous crimes

When there was an outage of Facebook a few days ago, billions of people around the world came to a complete standstill. People in different parts of the planet were shocked, terrified and left in darkness, wondering about their lives without Facebook.

A few days later, the same billions around the world were devastated to realise that terrorists had live-streamed a massacre they had committed at a mosque in New Zealand.

In this part of the world, people were left to spend hours in futile discussion on Facebook after a train crashed into a platform at Ramses Station in Cairo, killing dozens.

Egyptian Facebook users were divided into those who insisted that what had happened was an act of terrorism and others saying that sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood had planned the horrible accident. A third group simply posted like crazy whatever friends and family had circulated.

The three horrors shed light on how our lives have been distorted and become out of proportion due to our choices of how to use social media.

This has turned from a highly advanced tool helping people to get and stay in touch, exchange information, experiences and thoughts, send and receive pictures, and get to know the world without leaving the living room, into destructive tools capable of ruining the world.

The world freaked out when the social networks Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and Messenger were affected due to a serious disruption of the Internet.

One could almost sense the feeling of misery and gloom during these few hours that seemed like a lifelong experience for many.

While it is true that this was the biggest disruption seen by Facebook since the launch of the Downdetector site in 2012, according to a statement by co-founder Tom Sanders, yet it was also the biggest and maybe the most alarming indication of the site’s influence ever.

The first reactions of millions of Facebook users pointed to conspiracy theories, in which either hackers had attacked their pages and accounts, or intelligence agents of the East or the West were after their posts and discussions on social media.

However, despite the more than 7.5 million problems reported to Downdetector after the outage, and regardless of the complicated predictions and sophisticated analysis of the crisis made by Facebook users, the reason turned out to be simple, if not trivial, which added to the difficulty of the situation.

It seems that many have become almost completely hooked on social media, especially Facebook, which has far exceeded substance abuse and distantly surpassed tobacco consumption when it comes to dependence.

It is controlling the lives of millions all over the world, who like to think they are still in control, when many of them are not.

Not only was the horrific act of shooting innocent people while they were at Friday prayers live-streamed on Facebook via a camera that the terrorist had placed on his forehead in New Zealand last week, but some users kept sharing the horror over and over again.

Reading that the New Zealand police asked people on social media to stop sharing the footage seemed to be something out of an apocalyptic movie.

Researching more about the horror led to even more horror. Similar incidents of live-streamed crimes have taken place before in countries such as Denmark, the US and Thailand.

Who can forget the ghastly video of Islamic State (IS) fighters in Libya slaughtering Egyptian citizens four years ago and uploading the video later to shock the world and drive some to watch it again?

Whether it is a video or a live-streamed event of a terrorist documenting his grotesque deeds, steps should be taken that do not just involve asking social-media companies to monitor and control their content.

Questions should be asked, answers should be sought and solutions should be found as to how humanity has reached such a degraded level of watching fellow humans being slaughtered, shot, bombed or burnt.

It should be noted that we were prepared for this when we were sitting in our living rooms watching the first Gulf War in 1991 on the US network CNN.

Later on, thanks to the Qatari network Aljazeera, we watched Afghanistan fall to pieces and later Baghdad burning.

Following the New Zealand massacre, many voices in the West have started criticising the sense of responsibility, or rather the lack of it, when it comes to social-media companies.

Journalist Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote that “the brutality that killed at least 50 people and wounded many others was fuelled and fomented on social media, inviting support and, no doubt, inspiring future copycats. All of it ricocheted around the globe, just as planned.”

She went on to say that the “the platforms, when challenged on their role in viral violence, tend to say that there is no way they can control the millions of videos, documents and statements being uploaded or posted every hour around the world.”

Sullivan criticised the media companies’ response of not being able to control their content and portraying themselves as mere platforms for billions of users who can do whatever they want on them.

But she asked that they take some sort of gatekeeping or editing responsibility, as “the tragedy in New Zealand takes this dangerous, and largely untended, situation to a new level that demands intense scrutiny and reform.”

Sullivan has a point, even if the same logic was not prevalent during the live-streaming and video-sharing of other similar killings in parts of the Arab world.

However, intense scrutiny and reform are indeed required, as humanity is quickly losing its grip on those human characteristics which make people different from other creatures when it comes to empathy, sensitivity, benevolence and compassion.

The past few days have been extremely significant. We are drifting away from humanity and becoming more like virtual creatures who look like humans but don’t behave like them.

The past few years have witnessed some voices warning that the over-usage of social media is negatively affecting our mental and psychological health. Nowadays, we are suffering the effects of our mental and psychological illnesses.

* The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Social media and terrorism

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