Ariel has an interesting article over at the Guardian which not only describes current behaviours in mainstream and social media but serves as an excellent repository of such behaviours – in this case, in relation to the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. Whilst during the riots last year in Britain, social networks and social media served to put the authorities on the back foot, lessons since then have clearly been learned. When Ariel headlines the article in question as “The first social media war between Israel and Gaza”, he could just as easily describe it as one of the first social media wars, full stop. This, for example:
From the start, the Isreaeli Defence Force (IDF) and Hamas shared clips on YouTube, and posted messages and images on Facebook and Twitter (also here), which initiated heated debates on the platforms. Many reporters followed these and actively participated in the discussions, which made social media an important element of both reporting and criticism of the conflict.
This should hardly surprise us. That manipulation of social-media news and its transmission takes place must be self-evident to anyone with any experience of how stories in such contexts surge. Recent cases of sex-abuse allegations have generated claims and counter-claims which can hardly depend only on the dynamics of sheeply flocks. But in the argument that Ariel develops, we get a further strand of behaviours that add a far more complex interest to the mix. For he also describes and defines the following processes:
[...] Unlike any other war in the past, the Israeli-Gaza conflict has been characterised by the mass virtual participation of ordinary people via social media. [...]
And this has led to the more mainstream media feeling obliged to take onboard, and within their own frames, websites and even offline print, such popular – and, maybe, populist – content. In a post-blogging Facebook generation, where the very fact you’re an amateur communicator adds weight, veracity and conviction to what you tell, it must be the case that, in order to be able to properly convince, latterday industrial media has had to acquire a journalistic equivalent of what film-makers learned to call cinéma vérité. A kind of post-modern approach to communication, perhaps. A veneer of “realistic” edginess to their product where once smooth and house-ridden styles were sub-editorially imposed as unquestioned – and unquestionable – good practice.
Some further thoughts, then, on where this might all be leading us:
- We need to look beyond the tools and their physical manifestations – it’s always easy to notice the technology and think that content must inevitably follow suit. What’s clearly missing in all kinds of media at the moment is the instinct to reflect and think behind the headlines before putting virtual pen to paper – the impulse to leave, for a few days as a draft, a piece of work usefully unpublished. Blogging is as guilty of this as any newspaper columnist out there. I am as guilty of this as anyone else.
- I would also ask us to keep in mind that whilst the free press belongs to limited liability industry, free speech should belong to unlimited liability people. And the rights and responsibilities, as well as the punishments for transgression and so forth, should be quite different in each case. If we believe that international corporations are better guarantors of our free press than the laws of representative democracy, then the real problem doesn’t lie in statutory underpinning or not – it lies in a democracy which isn’t representative enough. No amount of any social media under the evermore fierce gaze of Western governments is going to fix a system as broken as that.
- A people’s press, then, perhaps? A kind of Fifth or Sixth Estate? We need statutory protection for free speech here in the UK at the very least if we are to propose such a model.
- The ideal? Maybe an osmotic world of information exchange where industry and people interface to their mutual benefit. But not under the current weight of English and Welsh libel laws.
A couple of final thoughts. First, in relation to these words from Ariel (the bold is mine):
Just as cyber-war and cyber-terrorism have become prevalent, social media warfare is here to stay. It seems that the fight for public opinion will keep growing in importance, and play a more central role in future conflicts. The fact that opposing parties can communicate directly with the public will increase the pressure on journalists to stay relevant.
To these words I would be inclined to add that the above-mentioned three battles will shortly form part of a new Holy Trinity of communication. Just as industrial media was kept in the shadow and practice of the security services throughout the whole Cold War and its aftermath, leading to the corruption that recent phone-hacking scandals have uncovered here in Britain, so now social media will be in the eye of and form a target for such institutions. It could hardly be any other way. If amateur communicators are making more of the news their peers are wanting to read than the news outlets themselves, no veneer, however thick, will fool any member of the post-Leveson generation. There is no way back. And the security services probably know this well before the newspaper industry is able and prepared to take it on the chin.
Second, these are all matters which have interested a lot of us recently – both readers and writers, both amateurs and professionals. Such a post-Leveson moment as this will surely serve to define at least the next fifty years of communication in Britain – and people really don’t realise what’s happening.
We’re sleepwalking into the future of so many unfreedoms.
Social media warfare being just one more sorry battleground they’ll fashion in order to restrict our ability not only, not primarily, to freely exchange our thoughts but also – far more importantly – to be able to evaluate their narratives.
Because if the future is going to work as I think Ariel believes, the ability to sift and determine where truth really lies will become far greater and relevant than it currently might be.
A world of multiple and simultaneous intertextualities?
Almost fit for a new generation of Johann Haris … and I mean that in as complimentary a fashion as you care to allow me.