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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Social media eclipses the mainstream in the struggle for Middle East news

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In a digital era, the emergence of new forms of media and extensive sources of information have raised concerns over the credibility and reliability of some media platforms. 

The increasing popularity of social media has sparked a global debate over freedom of speech, democracy, repression and reliability.

“Social media was, and is, both a reliable source of information and a stronghold of disinformation,” said Laura Al Bast, senior editor of digital strategy and communications at the Institute for Palestine Studies-USA.

“It all depends on who’s perceiving the content and whether they (1) have political bias, which is likely the majority of social media users, and (2) are media literate, which is not always the case.”

In recent years, social media has witnessed the emergence of news pages run by independent journalists, activists or citizens with no professional background in journalism, a phenomenon known as “citizen journalism”.

The initial aim of these pages was to keep people connected with the world and offer a somewhat neutral platform to view politics from a less subjective lens.

People needed a push to start thinking critically about politics and the ruling class in order to face crises in the region, said Antonio Bassim, administrator of Lebanon Times- a Lebanon-based Instagram page that criticises regional politics, with focus on the Lebanese political system.

How social media beat Israel’s propaganda machine 

“When I created Lebanon Times I had the intention to grow an audience, a big number of audience that is enough for me to start sending messages out, to start sending my ideas, to start pushing people to critically think and to use the sense of critical thinking and see things in different perspective not the traditional way,” Bassim said.

The call for free news platforms came as traditional news outlets were seen to be mostly controlled by governments or influential businessmen that use their platforms to serve a specific agenda.

Then came social media, which revolutionised the perception of politics and social issues, forming a catalyst for movements and demonstrations on a public scale.

The impact of social media can be seen following recent international events, such as the 11-day Israeli offensive on the besieged Gaza Strip. Live and exclusive footage was widely shared online from the heart of the Palestinian territories.

Palestinian activists and journalists also utilised social media platforms to document Israeli settlers’ illegal eviction of indigenous Palestinians and the multiple crimes committed in a series of brutal attacks in the occupied West Bank.

Read also: The rise of influencers: Can content creators make a ‘job’ out of social media?

“Palestinians in and outside of Palestine mobilised on applications like ClubHouse to strategise social media campaigns for Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan,” said Al Bast, who is also an organiser with the Palestinian Youth Movement in North America.

“Other groups did the same thing, like here in the US: USCPR, Palestinian Youth Movement, Jewish Voice for Peace, American Muslims for Palestine and others also mobilised using social media to pressure congress people, flood Twitter feeds, and call for nation-wide protests,” she added.

Prior to the war on Gaza, social media proved its significance during historic revolutions in the region, one of which was the Lebanese October 2019 uprising.

The social media exposure ignited a sense of patriotism in Lebanese expats across the globe, which was translated into organised protests worldwide in solidarity with their families in crisis-hit Lebanon.

Apart from its role as a catalyst for social movements and documenting reality on the ground, social media had a major impact on altering the public perception of politics and social issues.

“This year marked a significant shift in American perceptions on the Israeli occupation of Palestine – a shift in favour of Palestinians. In many ways, we won the digital battle for narrative,” Al Bast highlighted.

“Hundreds of American and Canadian journalists signed letters asking for media coverage to change and recognise Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. For the first time in Congress, the word Apartheid was used to describe the Israeli regime, and Palestinians, including myself, were offered space on TV, radio, and newspapers to tell our stories,” she continued.

During the Gaza war of May 2021, social media users widely utilised hashtags such as  #SaveSheikhJarrah and #GazaUnderAttack either to document reality, share opinions or spread information about the situation in the Palestinian territories.

Twitter witnessed a rare phenomenon where a single hashtag dominated the internet in different parts of the world, from the Middle East and North Africa region to Europe and the USA. Palestinians, Arabs and thousands supporters of the Palestinian cause attached these hashtags to their posts and tweets in an act known as “hashtag activism”.

People sought to raise awareness and build up public support via social media for the Palestinian cause through this popular form of activism as the voice of Palestinians under attack and fear of sudden eviction went unheard for decades.

#SaveSheikhJarrah and #GazaUnderAttack were among the top trending topics in Qatar, as well as in many other countries for days and even weeks. This ignited curiosity in people to learn about the situation in Palestinian territories, some of which, perhaps, for the first time.

By clicking on the Twitter hashtags, users were able to see real footage of what was actually happening on the ground; footage that is often hidden in traditional media coverage.

“This would not have been possible without social media. Palestinian youth and allies utilised hashtags such as #SaveSheikhJarrah and #GazaUnderAttack to bring attention to Israeli violence in real-time,” Al Bast said.

“For example, on Instagram Live, we were able to witness the moment Israeli soldiers barged into Al-Aqsa mosque and fired at worshippers. Jerusalemite social media users took out their phones to document the assault while escaping death. Many similar examples were seen across Palestine.”

Read also: What happens if you cause ‘trouble’ online?

Commenting on the impact of social media on public opinion, Ghadi Francis, a prominent war correspondent and social media activist said social media “is very crucial for raising awareness.

“I could see people from the United States, people from China, from all over the world, during the last war on Gaza, I could see how people were interacting with us, asking more questions about the Palestinian cause about the humanitarian issues and all of that. So yes, it did change the public opinion. I mean, not the whole public opinion, but it is something that you can start from.”

The increasing power and influence of social media on the public could not be disregarded by international news outlets, who found themselves scrambling for online presence and recognition from social media users.

As a journalist, I am an example of the two kinds of paradoxical situations that we’re living in our times. I did write articles and newspapers, but my articles wouldn’t have been as successful if I didn’t post them on my Facebook and Twitter at the time,” Francis noted. 

“However, social media pages not affiliated with traditional media have more influence,” Bassim highlighted.

‘Double-edged sword’

Despite all its positive aspects, experts warn that social media can have adverse effects on societies as it enables polarising messages and unreliable information to be easily spread.

In a 2020 report on “Technology and Democracy: understanding the influence of online technologies on political behaviour and decision-making”, an international team of experts studied the impact of social media platforms on political behaviour and decision-making.

The study outlined that people’s online engagement was sold as products to advertisers, referring to social media algorithm, where content that pops up is mostly selected to garner higher engagement rates.

This was specifically concerning because the algorithms can promote polarised content and prevent users from receiving certain information, which questions the reliability of such platforms when what’s viewed is selective.

“Media is a double-edged sword, because you cannot control it even if the government monitors it you can not have fully control over it,” Bassim said.

However, experts argue that the advantage of social media lies in the fact that it is control-free and accessible for everyone.

“I work in both kinds of media, so what I couldn’t say on TV, I did put on Twitter and it really made a difference, thousands of people exchanged that and not only that thousands of people shared what I said, but also thousands of activists followed up on the same way,” Francis said.

“So yes, it can be used positively and it can be used negatively, and is misused sometimes. So we can never generalise.”


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