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Social Media: A Double-Edged SwordPosted by: admin on Mon, 2011-09-19 14:55
The Arab Spring has brought attention to the potential for using
social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to share news and facilitate activities
of those involved in social change. But Sultan Al Qassemi cautions against seeing these
tools as panaceas for oppression; he says that they can be equally effective tools for the oppressors.
By: Caldwell Bishop
The Arab Spring has brought attention to the potential for using social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to share news and facilitate activities of those involved in social change. But Sultan Al Qassemi cautions against seeing these tools as panaceas for oppression; he says that they can be equally effective tools for the oppressors.
Al Qassemi spoke at The George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs on Sept. 16 at an event titled, “Tweeting the Arab Revolution.” Al Qassemi is a businessman and freelance columnist whose “tweets” were one of the primary sources of coverage during the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. He acknowledged the role of social media in providing accurate news to people as well as a way to spread the word and mobilize in Tunisia and Egypt this past winter and spring.
However, he noted that governments also have increased their capabilities of monitoring such networks. China’s “Great Firewall” is the epitome of internet monitoring capabilities, though other countries such as Iran, Malaysia, and Bahrain are also monitoring social media platforms and whisking away online dissenters to undisclosed locations. In the end, what happened in Egypt and Tunisia – when governments had yet to realize social media’s potential – may be far more difficult to repeat in today’s circumstances.
At the same time, Al Qassemi said social media is still largely a tool of the elite in many countries. According to Al Qassemi, Egypt has between 5 million and 10 million Facebook users out of a population of more than 80 million people. In the Arab world as a whole, perhaps 10 percent of the population uses Facebook or Twitter. While social media is "free" to use in principle, access to the internet and thus to social media is still limited in much of the world. As a result, many people’s news is still coming from radio, print, and television – which can be less timely than social media and easier to censor. Thus many people in regions affected by social change may have no access to news of what is happening in their area.
Al Qassemi also the problem of credibility of information. Twitter, Facebook and other such sites are free to users and their content is generally unregulated. Anyone can post a story and claim it is breaking news. Just as people can use the sites to mobilize, protest, and share news, individuals or governments can also use them to disseminate disinformation or biased information.
So how does one determine who on Twitter is credible? Al Qassemi and Andy Carvin of U.S. National Public Radio offered their advice on what to look for when deciding whom to believe:
- Look at who follows the individual
o Are there credible followers? People you have met?
- Do their posts embellish on official news items?
- Ask for visual evidence
- Ask for sources
- Look at their social network
o Are they treated as a credible source of information by the people they interact with? What do their conversations look like – real or manufactured?
- Watch out for “eggs”
o If someone’s avatar (the picture next to their name) is an egg on twitter, that means they have yet to upload an image there and are using the default, something uncommon among people who are actively reporting on Twitter
- How old is the account?
o While not always the case, accounts made in the past couple days or weeks may be worth following but until their information proves more credible, shouldn’t be taken seriously
As technology continues to progress, it is possible that new ways of communicating with others to spread news and create change will arise. Until then, it is important to remember that while social media has great potential for good, it can also be used to oppress. So be mindful of what information is being put out there and make sure a source is credible before taking action based on their word.
Caldwell Bishop works with AudienceScapes and is a graduate student at The George Washington University. His research interests are in East Asia, development, economics, the environment and human rights.