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Social Media: What’s the Deal?

Interactive media itself is a contentious battleground. YouTube for example gives any and everyone (with access of course) the opportunity to express their own story, viewpoint, or analysis in the form of short movies, sounds, homemade video, etc. Thus many who feel their struggles aren’t given credence or the time of day use YouTube to create space in what was and (often still is) an experiential void. From activists to lay people, from showing footage of violent occupation to a monologue, YouTube is a venue for voice. What is most striking are the conflicts that arise when social media is repressed by States.

The attack on the Mavi Marmara in May of 2010 is a case in point. Immediately after firing upon and boarding a Turkish aid ship killing a number of unarmed civilians, Israeli forces confiscated all media taken by passengers. Directly following the raid, Israeli media “uploaded a series of videos of the attack on the flotilla to YouTube…[shaping] the U.S. media’s understanding of the raid.”5 Members on board, aware of the attempts to obfuscate what was happening, tried in vain to keep hold of the shreds of evidence in their possession of the invasion. As a result, those who successfully kept their recordings with them initiated what Diana Allan and Curtis Brown deem “A multifaceted online information war…not only on YouTube but also on Twitter, Facebook, and in the blogosphere,” a battle of redemption for the truth.6 How could this happen, one might ask? Social media has created a virtual space that embodies the physical, the real, and the experienced. It is contested space. Israel (but certainly not limited to it by any means) has sought dominance in the virtual realm to win the hearts and minds of the tech savvy, thus limiting the narrative of its actions there too. The activists published the remaining footage of the invasion still in their possession, critiquing the Israeli propaganda. The original Israeli narrative however, scattering social media networks and mainstream corporate media in the US, remained dominant. The damage was done.

In a similar vein, Wikileaks struck a resounding chord in the United States especially, as well as around the world. Rather than being able to prevent its inevitable spread, the US embarked on a containment policy. As result, mainstream corporate media deemphasized the actual leaks by emphasizing the alleged sex crimes of Julian Assange (indictments still to be seen), as one MSNBC article displays in satire.7 However government employees are still warned not to read the leaks.8 The reproduction of Wikileaks releases’ over the social media mainframe reverberate today as a threat to national security.

Yet in this chaos we still reminisce the incidents following Iran’s elections and Twitters indelible mark upon our memory. The hype over Twitter served the rhetoric coming out of Washington well, to demonize the Iranian Regime. Now, it is the venue which the world has learned of vicious Ben Ali’s abdication and dethronement, as seen in clips all over YouTube and other sites.9 The events in Tunisia have again stirred the pool of praise for social media: ironically in spite of the United States’s cooperation with Ali’s regime the last 24 years.10 As a Los Angeles Times article begins: “In Tunisia’s state of unrest, protesters are using blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Wikileaks documents, YouTube and other methods to mobilize and report on what is going on,” and their admiration for social media’s organizing power is made evident.11 Another author boasted “Social Media Made [the] Tunisian Uprising Possible.”12 It seems what we perceive as online media-led is often a reflection of a tumultuous lived experience just making its presence known. In spite of government repression of the web, as a friend of mine reports to me who is currently in Tunisia, popular mobilization is possible; but that experience is neither new nor is the social anxiety and or action against it. One columnist in the blogosphere responded, decrying in his title: “Social Media Didn’t Oust Tunisia’s President-The Tunisian People Did.”13

Social media is tossed around like a political softball, not just by governments, but media outlets themselves who aren’t sure where to classify it. Like any other form of expression which has the potential to challenge dominant narratives and representations, it is constantly under close surveillance. Yet its effectiveness is not so easily discernable. US corporate media, for example, did not become more critical of Israeli actions after those on board the Mavi Marmara proved their experience of being unjustly attacked.14 YouTube’s ability to broadcast these suppressed narratives, the violence of Israeli occupation, as well as other crimes against humanity elsewhere in the Middle East (as well as elsewhere in the world for that matter!), have not broached the chasm separating them and mainstream media representations. The Middle East Media Research Institute remains the most extensive repository for video content and translations used by media outlets and Government agencies in the United States and elsewhere.15 MEMRI’s translated clips, from Arabic and other languages to English, utilized in these media outlets, fall under program ‘projects’ such as: “The Jihad and Terrorist Watch,” “The Reform Project [of the Arab and Muslim World],” while making known that it: “On a daily basis…assists and lends support to all branches of the U.S [military]… in carrying out the War on Terror.16

In spite of this, social media’s influence remains meaningful. In December, Youth in Gaza opened a Facebook page bellowing out their frustrations of living under Israeli Occupation and Hamas rule. The “Gaza Youth Manifesto For Change,” with 17, 874 people who “like” it, is an appeal to the world to action, and to listen to their basic cries:

“We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace. Is that too much to ask? We are a peace movement consisting of young people in Gaza and supporters elsewhere that will not rest until the truth about Gaza is known by everybody in this whole world and in such a degree that no more silent consent or loud indifference will be accepted.”

Social media gives hope. Even if another Facebook Group, YouTube video, or Tweet contradicts one’s experience. As long as we know someone is watching, clicking, reading our imprints on social media, then our voices are heard. Our experiences are given legitimacy in their recognition. Just the same: student groups, community organizers, family-reunion planners, the list goes on, use these tools to reduce the anxiety of not being heard, to “spread the word.” Everyone you befriend can see what you post. The opportunity for critical exchanging of ideas is there.

This is an article written by Beshara Kehdi, one of the articles that won the recent Cheyney Ryan Contest. Click here to read the entire article.


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Beshara Kehdi

Beshara Kehdi is a senior at the University of Oregon majoring in history and comparative literature, and minoring in political science and religious studies. He is a Lebanese-American, Antiochian Orthodox Christian, born and raised in Portland, OR. While at the UO, he has been involved with the Arab Student Union,… MORE >

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