Facebook: Friend or Foe?
By Libby Edwards
The image of five-year-old boy, Omran Daquneesh, sitting injured in an orange ambulance chair shocked the world in 2016. Young Omran was an innocent victim of one of many airstrikes to hit the city of Aleppo, and his photograph awoke the West to the reality of the humanitarian crisis that Syria was facing. Aleppo and Syria trended on Twitter and was broadcasted across western news forums for months. Yet, little was done to intervene and the war in Syria progressed.
On the other side of the globe, in that very same year, Donald Trump ran a successful presidential campaign and was elected into office as the 45th President of the United States. Many have attributed Trump’s success to his social media presence. His controversial tweets gained him more media coverage and attracted more voters’ attention than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The question is: how can social media have such an overwhelming political effect in one country, yet have an insignificant effect on a month-long massacre in another?
Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Denver, argues that social media is aiding despots and dictators, while ‘giving the general masses the illusion of political empowerment and opportunity for change’. For many, social media offers a platform for freedom of speech and expression, but to what extent does it really offer these human rights to those in despot-ruled nations?
Statistics show that the popularity of social media tools grew significantly in the Middle East throughout the first quarter of 2011; the number of users spiking by 30% before April. Uncoincidentally, this corresponded with beginning of the Arab Spring. This stark increase in social media presence can lead one to think that Facebook played a key role in mobilizing the civil movement. Research from the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam found that online revolutionary conversations often preceded mass protests on the ground. But does this really help the democratic cause?
It would seem that social media has in fact hurt the protests for democracy and liberty that filled the streets of countries like Syria. For one, it limits the political movement to almost entirely one method: street demonstrations. This leaves protesters vulnerable as the public nature of Facebook allows despotic regimes to uncover detailed information about these demonstrations and prepare their retaliation accordingly. Protesters essentially become “sitting ducks” to state-led killing and mass arrests. In February 2011, the Syrian regime allowed its people direct access to Facebook, since it had previously only been available via a VPN. This was an obvious tactic to facilitate surveillance and tracking protests. Many were arrested just for sharing a photo or commenting on a post.
Not to mention, groups such as the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) manipulate social media platforms to support the government of President Bashar al-Assad by spamming, phishing and other remote techniques. The SEA often targets western news forums or human rights groups, using surveillance software to reveal the identities and locations of rebels. In 2013, this surveillance was extended to foreign aid workers. The group have also been known to spam popular Facebook pages, such as Barack Obama’s, with pro-regime comments. In this sense, social media is being used as a weapon to hinder the democratic movements in the Middle East.
Facebook remains in a quandary on how to respond. Whilst the company is bound by American law, they have publicised that they “try to comply” with local codes. It has opened an office in Dubai in an attempt to liaise with officials in the region.
Nonetheless, Facebook itself has been acting as an obstruction to this “freedom of speech” for those who are victims of authoritarian governments. In recent months, the company has deleted hundreds of users’ accounts from nations such as Iran and Israel, and deleted hundreds of thousands of posts. Often, the translation tool is to blame, as many posts are removed for hate speech or terrorism. Facebook has approximately 2.7 billion users, many of whom write in foreign languages, but the firm’s 15,000 content moderators struggle to cope with the quantity. Not to mention, most of these moderators are not fluent in Arabic.Thus, considerations of cultural nuance or idiom are nowhere to be seen. Even Hizbullah’s opponents have to spell the militia’s name with a space between each letter to prevent Facebook deleting their posts. The result is that many key voices are left out of the online conversation.
However, Omar Alshakal, founder of Refugee 4 Refugees, reminds us of a crucial service that Facebook does provide: communication with family and friends. More than 5.5 million Syrians are now living as refugees as a result of the conflict, many of whom have been separated from loved ones. The platform is used by many as a tool to stay updated with news from home and locate long-lost relatives amid the chaos.
Whilst Facebook serves as a platform for communication, it does not act as an opportunity for freedom of speech nor an opportunity for democracy for all of its users.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.