For Arabs, the year 2012 might be seen as the first year where wars were waged through social media networks. This, after 2011 saw those same networks become so prominent in the social fabric governing the Arab peoples that they began to effect fundamental change in the latter through the interlocking relationship that developed between them and the Arab Spring. The Gaza war provided a unique glance at how Twitter (a website for exchanging short messages, and one of the most prominent social media networks) has become the scene of the region's first "hashtag war." This round pit #PillarOfDefense (the hashtag used by the Israeli Army for disseminating its tweets) against #GazaUnderSiege (the hashtag used by Islamic Jihad in its tweets concerning the resistance in Gaza).
Perhaps because matters had escalated both politically and militarily before the competition erupted, this "Twitter war" closely tracked the war's military progress step by step. In all likelihood, years hence it will seem backwards and hidebound that such things even needed to be pointed out, for they will be taken for granted. After all, no one today bothers to speak about "radio wars," for example, even though that device gained notoriety in the Arab world during the 1950s and 60s for being the medium through which the era's frequent military coups were announced.
Television wars had an unbelievable impact on sociological and cultural thought in the West. This was due to the influence of factors including its powerful role in determining the course of the Cold War, as well as in a number of wars that followed the Soviet implosion, such as the Iraq War. Through these theories emerged the distinctive voice of the late French thinker Jean Baudrillard, who left behind a legacy of theorizing about the intricacies of visual culture. This extended to his singular analysis of 9/11, undertaken from this perspective.
Returning to social media, however, it is difficult to overlook the fact that this year also witnessed several social media giants taking powerful hits to their credibility. YouTube, a website for sharing video clips produced by the public, has been particularly prominent in this regard. While the Arab Spring led to YouTube's emergence as a fundamental pillar in the growing phenomenon of "Citizen Journalism," the wars of 2012 shook the credibility of this Google-owned website among many in the Arab world.
Google Strikes Again
"The first YouTube war" is a good way to describe the tumultuous events that accompanied the video, "The Innocence of Muslims." Without rehashing the now-familiar details, YouTube played a vital role in disseminating it, even though no one took an interest in the video despite its having been released months earlier in the US. Then Facebook rounded out social media's role in those bloody events, which culminated in the death of the US ambassador to Libya, John Stevens. It became a venue for the bellowing rage about this video. In the furor that followed this tragic war, which revealed how far an extremely retrograde Arab populist awareness has spread, YouTube violated its own conditions for content exhibiting bigotry and incitement (see, for example, Al-Hayat's article from Oct. 21 titled, "Google has Fallen Prey to the Paradox of Freedom with the Anti-Islam Movie.")
Clearly, someone inexperienced in media affairs believed that YouTube's requirements to refrain from posting offensive and derogatory videos obviously applied to "Innocence of Muslims" but Google, the company that owns YouTube, insisted the video not be removed. It might be fair to say the planned boycott that Arab activists called for online represented the civilized antithesis to the reckless outbursts, girded in bone-deep backwardness, that manifested themselves in the protest against the release of the anti-Islam video on YouTube. After this calm campaign, YouTube intended to prevent the video's release to a number of Muslim countries. This, however, was problematic for two reasons. First, it was difficult to overlook the fact that the prohibition stemmed from political pressures. And second, it clearly eroded freedoms of speech and expression. These events pushed President Barack Obama to defend the decision not to ban "Innocence of Muslims" on the podium of the United Nations, saying that freedom of opinion on the Internet is an integral component of human liberties and an inalienable right.
A strikingly similar event took place in the Gaza war, but highlighted with vastly greater intensity the nexus between social media and what today's Arab societies are going through in real life. The assassination of Ahmad al-Jabari, the leader of Islamic Jihad, was the spark that unleashed the armed conflict in Gaza. Israeli activists sought to place the video on YouTube shortly after the assassination. To go into the details, Israel launched Operation: Pillar of Cloud by blowing up Jabari's car as it was driving through the streets of Gaza. A few hours after the explosion, footage of the assassination was shown on YouTube.
Online Freedom of Information
Perhaps some were justifiably pained when the question was posed about the right to know and the freedom to express one's opinion, in the context of a debate on the spread of the video depicting Jabari's assassination.This question goes deeper than politics. Perhaps some believed that Jabari was a terrorist, while looking upon his assassination as one more episode in a cycle of reciprocal terrorism. Perhaps many refused to accept this point of view, insisting that Jabari was a leader of the resistance, forced to resort to violence in order to confront the occupation and the blood-stained military apparatus of the Israeli Occupation Army.
Debate and discussion of such matters drag on, as is the case in many political affairs. But they touch upon an issue that is unrelated to politics narrowly conceived, yet bound up with its wider cultural implications. Should the Palestinian people not have the right to see a video depicting the martyrdom of one of their leaders? Why do some always think that people are not human beings with working minds, with the right to determine what is best for them and their lives, regardless of whatever suggestions may come their way?
Thus, this video did not only launch a fierce battle of clashing opinions over social media outlets, particularly on Twitter, at the same time as rockets and aerial strikes were raining from the sky, but it also became clear that it violated one of the message distribution system's own guidelines. They specifically tell users to refrain from posting any video that depicts an individual being assaulted, insulted, or physically harmed!
In a related context, one of the international news agencies reported an employee at Twitter (who requested to remain anonymous) informed them that the guidelines are simply that: guidelines. They are not fixed rules. This enables users to post objectionable videos. Yet the authority to remove those videos, in the final analysis, remains with Twitter's global review team — knowing the issues are complex, particularly when it comes to war zones.