Year in Review: Social Media in the Spotlight

In 2015, the number of active Twitter and Facebook users grew to 320 million and 1.5 billion respectively[1]. Over the course of the year, politicians, news outlets, members of the public and even terrorist organisations relied heavily on these and other social media platforms in order to break news, share opinions and both learn about as well as respond to current events. As a result, social media campaigns and trends helped to shape global affairs and the dialogue surrounding them in 2015. From #JeSuisParis and #RefugeesWelcome to #BlackLivesMatter and #LoveWins, these campaigns often encouraged positive and progressive discourse. Yet, there was a darker side to the rise of social media politics. The battle in 2016 and beyond will be over how to prevent these flourishing communication channels from becoming tools to spread false information and violent rhetoric.

Jason Howie

Image courtesy of Jason Howie, © 2013, some rights reserved.

President Barack Obama has reached 68.7 million Twitter followers as of January 2016[2]. He is an example of one of many world leaders who, in 2015, used the site as a tool to express his views and promote his policies to a large online following. His tweets provided soundbites on how he was seeking to tackle both domestic and global issues while always promoting himself and his administration as the driving force behind positive change. For example, following the success of the Paris Peace Conference on climate change, Obama tweeted, ‘This is huge: almost every country in the world just signed on to the #ParisAgreement on climate change – thanks to American leadership[3].’ Obama also turned to Twitter when American schoolboy Ahmed Mohamed was arrested after a homemade clock he brought into school was misidentified as a potential bomb threat. Amid a social media frenzy which saw the hash tag #IStandWithAhmed trending, the President wrote, ‘Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great[4].’ Furthermore, the US President also interacted with the public last year through the Facebook page and blog Humans of New York. He commented on a number of posts, including one featuring a Syrian refugee, as well as appearing in his own series of photos accompanied by an interview with creator Brandon Stanton[5]. With these posts, Obama appears to have been seeking to create a discourse of openness and solidarity.

Many other important figures on the global stage joined Obama in 2015 in using social media to express their own agendas, as well as to spread the message of solidarity during times of international crisis. It has become common practice for politicians and other public figures to write a post during or following natural disasters or terror attacks, to the extent that absence of such an online response might be considered telling. These responses, however, can also carry their own agenda, as in the case of controversial GOP candidate Donald Trump’s Twitter response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. The tweet read, ‘Isn’t it interesting that the tragedy in Paris took place in one of toughest gun control countries in the world[6].’ The tweet was met with some condemnation for pushing Trump’s own domestic agenda and is a perfect example of the danger of politicians and other public figures spreading soundbites on social media. When everything is condensed into 140 characters, it can become oversimplified and miss the bigger picture. This being said, the tweet was also part of a wider dialogue with other public figures who responded differently to the tragedy, leading to a broad and arguably constructive online conversation about terror, free speech and prevention of future attacks. This suggests that the growing use of social media by politicians may yet prove to be beneficial to all.

This is huge: Almost every country in the world just signed on to the #ParisAgreement on climate change—thanks to American leadership.This is huge: Almost every country in the world just signed on to the #ParisAgreement on climate change—thanks to American leadership.This is huge: Almost every country in the world just signed on to the #ParisAgreement on climate change—thanks to American leadership.As the online presence of global political figures has grown, so too has the presence of those who seek to topple established governments through violent means – namely terrorist groups. The group styling itself as Islamic State or ISIS expanded its online presence throughout 2015, relying on social media as a means of recruitment. Propaganda videos in addition to issues of Dabiq, ISIS’s online English language magazine, were shared across the internet over the course of the year[7]. The unprecedented quantity of such material, coupled with the attention it received, resulted in world leaders working to prioritise the shutting down of terrorist activity online. At the start of 2015, President Obama made calls in his State of the Union Address for leaders in the law and technology industries to take steps to combat the growing technological proficiency of terrorist groups[8]. A year later, in January 2016, senior officials in his administration were meeting with technology officials to discuss new methods of tackling the issue but it is still acknowledged that this will be a lengthy, difficult and potentially even impossible task[9]. Web infrastructures are inherently almost impossible to control, and for every successful closure of an extremist website it appears another dozen are created.

In the meantime, the internet remains a breeding ground for extremist thought, and not just amongst supporters of terrorism. Social media is becoming an all too effective tool for pitting different political, national and religious groups against each other. In December, Donald Trump called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States in an address, a clip from which quickly went viral[10]. In the final days of 2015, the same clip was used in recruitment footage created by the al-Shabaab terrorist group[11]. Trump’s words and the terrorist group’s use of them have helped to create an imagined ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy used by both Western and terrorist media outlets and perhaps unknowingly, supported by many on social media. Trump’s words, shared all over the internet, have painted Muslims as ‘other’ while the inclusion of them in the video has positioned ‘The West’ as Muslim hating.

With politicians and terrorists alike using social media to push their own agendas, it became more important than ever for members of the public to engage intelligently with social media in 2015. Doing so, however, was made harder by the disarray social media descended into following each fresh crisis, attack or controversial speech. By their very nature, sites like Twitter and Facebook lend themselves to news reporting and analysis in terms of the quantity of information and debate provided, while the opposite is true in terms of quality. In addition to the inherent bias found in next to all news stories, both traditional and online, social media trends and campaigns are far more likely to be built on foundations of inaccuracy and misinformation.

The clearest example of social media getting things wrong in this manner can be seen in some of the responses to the November terror attacks in Paris. As events were unfolding in Paris, social media was ablaze with people, quite understandably, attempting to discern what was happening. This was followed, however, by a number of false reports becoming viral. In one instance, an image of the Eiffel Tower without its lights lit was circulated with the incorrect tagline that they had been dimmed for the first time in over 100 years as a tribute to victims[12]. While there was no truth to this statement, the original tweet was retweeted 30,000 times and large outlets such as Fox News began reporting it. In an even more worrying instance, a picture claiming to show one of the suicide bombers went viral shortly after the attacks[13]. In actuality, the man pictured was an innocent Sikh man, holding up an Ipad to take a profile shot of himself in the mirror. The photograph had been crudely photoshopped by another party, who replaced the Ipad with a Quran and added a suicide belt.

Joanne Stalker is managing editor of Grasswire, a website which aims to be a real-time newsroom. She has spoken of how news outlets and social media sites will always get a lot wrong in the fallout of a significant incident. Her advice is to behave in a cautionary manner when reading and sharing information found online[14]. In order to behave intelligently on social media, we must ask where information has come from and how reliable of a source that is. We must strive to keep the line which social media so often blurs between fact and speculation or opinion as distinct as possible. In short, we should think now and share later. After all, misinformation can do far more damage than no information at all.

Once it is determined which trends are based on factually sound information, social media users are left with the question of what trends are actually saying and achieving. Following the Paris Terror attacks, Facebook made the decision to implement a safety check feature, something that had only previously been done after the occurrence of natural disasters. This decision sparked widespread criticism when commentators began to ask why the same service had not been extended to those in other recent terror attacks, including Beirut the day before, where 43 people died[15]. Such critique only increased when an option was introduced to add a French flag filter to the Facebook profile picture. Again, this had not been offered after other terrorist attacks, or during wars with considerably more casualties such as the ongoing fighting in Syria. When French-British Facebook user, Charlotte Farhan, shared her reasons for not using the filter, the post was shared a total of 88000 times. She explained,

‘I won’t be changing my profile to the French flag even though I am French and from Paris. The reason for this is that if I did this for only Paris this would be wrong. If I did this for every attack on the world, I would have to change my profile everyday several times a day. My heart is with the world, no borders, no hierarchy, I hold every human’s life with value who is attacked by extremist beliefs whether they are based on religion, prejudice or profit!’[16]

Some have rebutted the criticisms of these features by pointing out that a potential lack of access to social media and even web connectivity would make these features less beneficial in locations like Beirut. Meanwhile, others have argued that it is wrong to condemn well-meant attempts to show solidarity and shared grief. However, there is still a strong argument that popular social media and the trends it creates allows for a greater focus on some voices and grievances than on others, perhaps even prioritising some lives over others.

Thus, we should not only be asking where news and opinions distributed on social media originated from, but whether what we post, view, share and like will actually achieve the aims and portray the message that we hope it will. This being said, social media provided the platform for the conversation which followed on a huge scale about Facebook’s decision. The likes of Farhan had their views heard and perhaps their feedback will be reflected in alterations made by Facebook in their response to future crises. Social media sites are arguably still learning how to tackle the fallout from huge international events and we as citizens and members of the public are learning how to behave on our social media accounts when this happens. Nevertheless, without online dialogue, there would not be such diverse and varying platforms through which to debate these issues and improve both the reporting of such news and our response to it. Indeed, social media can often give voice to those who are struggling to be heard, be it the dissidents using Sina Weibo to protest the Chinese government, the protestors who arranged the Arab Spring across the Middle East on Twitter, or the campaigners who began using the hash tag #BlackLivesMatter in 2013 to draw the world’s attention to civil rights issues in America.

In addition to fostering exciting ideas and debate, social media proved beneficial following the Paris Terror attacks as a tool for preventing further terror threat. More specifically, following a request by Belgian Police that the public not tweet details about a police mission tracking down suspects in Brussels, the hash tag #BrusselsLockdown was used to post misleading cat pictures[17]. In a bid to confuse anyone looking for information about the anti-terror operation and to drown out anything that might be of use, Belgian Twitter users were joined by people from around the world in posting pictures of cats alongside the hash tag instead. Here, social media was used in a humorous manner in order to prevent further tragedy. The trend is hopefully an indicator of more clever uses of social media to come.

So, while the increasing role of social media in shaping dialogue around global issues allowed for misinformation and hateful, dividing rhetoric to be shared around the world in 2015, it also allowed for the sharing of ideas, stories and opinions aimed at bringing about humour, solidarity and positive change. The internet is a quick-paced and confusing world of useful as well as nonsensical debate. As we move into 2016 and beyond, it is worth consciously evaluating our own role in interacting with social media trends as they will no doubt become more and more important day to day and in times of crisis.

 

[1] Henderson, E, ‘Twitter Reveals its most popular hashtags of 2015’, The Independent 7/12/2015 & ‘Facebook’s Messenger App Now Has Over 800 Million Active Monthly Users’, Independent Reporter 7/1/2016

[2] Barack Obama’s Twitter Account, accessed January 2016

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] White, D, ‘President Obama Just Commented on This Inspirational Humans of New York Post’, Time 3/9/2015

[6] Donald Trump’s Twitter Account, accessed January 2016

[7] ‘The Language of Terror’ Podcast, On The Media November 2015

[8] Sands, G & Hughes, M, ‘Government Officials, Technology Leaders Tackle Terrorism at Summit’, ABC News 8/1/2016

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pilkington, E, ‘Donald Trump: Ban All Muslims Entering US’, The Guardian 8/12/2015

[11] Sims, A, ‘Donald Trump Features in al’Shabaab Terrorist Recruitment Video’ The Independent 2/1/2016

[12] Gordon, B, ‘Paris Terror Attacks: Why Social Media is Turning us all into Idiots’, The Telegraph 22/11/2015

[13] The Language of Terror’ Podcast, On The Media November 2015

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mandhai, S, ‘Facebook Gets Flack for Beirut-Paris ‘Double Standard’’, Al Jazeera 15/11/2015

[16] Sandhu, S, ‘French Flag Facebook: Charlotte Farhan Explains Why She Has Not Changed Her Profile Picture to Include the Tricolore’ The Independent 16/11/2015

[17] Sims, A, ‘Brussels Lockdown: Belgians Tweet Pictures of Cats to Confuse ISIS Terrorists’, The Independent 23/11/2015