Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here day to participate in this discussion.

  1. I’d like to start by saying a few words about the state of social media today
  1. Then I want to move to consider (briefly) some of threats to communication across social networks
  1. And then I want to conclude by looking at a positive development of promoting peace through social media.
  1. As all of us know, especially those of us with children or grand children, social media is one of the defining phenomena of our age and it is only a decade or so old.

In all, 2.3bn persons world wide are active social media users

nearly 2bn of them are using their mobile devices as the platform of choice for their social media interactions.

And yes…1.2 bn of these users are on Facebook… For example, in the US, two-thirds of

Americans (200m+) are regular users of Facebook, the most popular and dominant platform globally.

Huge new business dominate this industry: Google (founded 1998) will earn revenues of around $80 bn this year. Facebook (founded 2004) will earn revenues of around $25 bn.

One last point on Facebook: it also owns WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram. Collectively these four platforms have 3.7 bn accounts.

And lastly, of the top 10 social and messenger platforms, 7 are from the US, and 3 from China. The Chinese sites are all owned by the same company, Tencent Holdings, based in Shenzhen, adjacent to Hong Kong, and have in total 2.1 bn accounts. Again, accounts are not necessarily individuals as some may all three.

  1. At the beginning of the 21st century there was an enormous amount of optimism about the internet. A sphere of free, liberated and liberating discussion. There was a lot of talk about the creation of the new ‘public sphere’ uncorrupted by spin and advertising where democratic discourse could flourish. The internet and social media was seen as ‘liberation technology’ outside the control of the state. Indeed hadn’t Rupert Murdock, in the mid-1990s, forecast that the internet was an unambiguous threat to non-free societies?

Well authoritarians around the world listened. In some parts of the world the internet and social media have become tools of oppression. Rather than a window looking out into a multifarious world, the internet has become a panopticon where users are never sure when they are being watched by the state…(China, Russia, much of the Arab world…)

Government has learned well the lesson Google and Facebook knew from the beginning: that we reveal ourselves when we interact with information and communication technologies. This interaction enables Google and Facebook to target advertisements to our special interests and generate the enormous revenues as a result; and it allows governments to monitor what we think, plan and do.

There has been a hardening of social media censorship in China since Xi Jinping came to power. Before, China’s vast army of internet snoopers were content to let criticism of the government be ventilated, so long as it did not lead to organised opposition in the streets.

Now the government has become increasing concerned about unauthorised news appearing on line.

In the middle east, the so-called spring had turned decidedly wintry.

Research from Oslo’s Peace Research Institute is telling. Two scholars — Espen Rod and Nils Wiederman — looked at whether social media and internet empowered activists or autocrats. Worryingly, they found:

governments that are more concerned about controlling the domestic information environment have higher Internet expansion rates

If the Internet can be used as a tool to solidify autocratic survival by shaping public opinion as well as to identify dissenters, then more repressive regimes should be the most interested in providing online connection

They instance this by social media and internet controls in Saudi Arabia.

Another study, this time by Anita Gohdes in Mannheim, looks at government directed internet shut down and military conduct. She analyses the war in Syria over 2011-2013 where she found that internet outages coincided with major military activity.

not all battles are accompanied by internet outages, but when they are, they tend to be preceded by a substantial increase in violence

Syria presents the first conflict that has been meticulously followed and fuelled by a vast online audience: by the opposition fighters and supporters, by regime forces and their supporters, and by the outside world at large. The increasing importance of establishing control over content on and access to the internet is likely to exercise a growing appeal on regimes eager to adjust their repertoire of repressive tools in dealing with new digital threats to their stability

  1. I said at the beginning that I would end on a positive note. This takes us back to Facebook and, surprisingly, Israel… and a fascinating study interaction between Jews and Palestinians on social media.

It is very much ‘straws in the wind’ but a group of Israeli communication specialists analysed the interaction between Palestinians and Jews and came to some encouraging conclusions. Being academics, they call Facebook …computer mediated communication (CMC). But they are hopeful that the sharing of experiences, or narratives, will help ameliorate tensions between the two communities. The study points to : the major role the topic of discussion may play in enabling cooperative dialogues between groups in protracted ethnopolitical conflicts. When Palestinians expressed a desire for peace they met positive reaction from jewish participants…a basis for dialogue if sure foundation.

While they concede continuous face-to-face communication is superior, they conclude: “Our findings suggest that Facebook can indeed serve as a platform that enables intergroup dialogue in the context of the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Facebook is an open arena for discus- sions, on which participants from different ethnopolitical groups in a conflicted society can share ideas, opinions and reactions and engage in peace building activities.

The other major development that I’ve not touched on is social media’s impact on the work of journalists — enabling them to dramatise conflict and record voices that were excluded in the past.  Here is Anastasia Taylor-Lind, a British photo-journalist on the impact of social media:

“The changing landscape of journalism has forced many of us to change the way we tell stories. I have no choice but to experiment with new tools that technology has gifted me. Social media broadens a journal ist’s reach and scope. It allows profession also to share experiences immediately and directly with their audiences. It also allows consumers of images to interact with and influence the creator. This is an enriching experience, for the audience, which feels an increased closeness to events without the middleman of a newspaper or media outlet, and for the photographer, who can learn what moves people to engage with a given subject. This is direct and personal storytelling. Most exciting for me, it can be a way to engage and include the people in the pictures and the communities from which they come.”

Prof. Simon Holberton

Author: Prof. Simon Holberton

Lecturer in Journalism at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

Professor Holberton teaches courses in New Media, investigative and literary journalism at undergraduate and postgraduate level. His most recent research has looked at the way the commemoration of war is reported in the media, especially the ANZAC Day remembrance. Before joining Deakin, he worked for The Age newspaper in Australia and Japan, and the Financial Times in London, Hong Kong and China. He is the co-author with Humphrey Hawksley of Dragonstrike (1997), a speculative thriller about China’s capture of the South China Sea.

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