Perhaps President Joe Biden wanted to send a message that is strong, clear, and shocking at the same time when he described the social networking site Facebook as “killing people.” Facebook, along with its fast-growing competitors, most of which are native to the US, have flooded the world.
The description of President Biden came against the backdrop of Facebook publishing information that the president deemed misleading or false regarding the vaccines, on which doubts have been frequently cast by social media around the world. The president’s concern stems from this false information being believed by some who will act accordingly, resulting in losing more lives to this pandemic, disrupting the economy, and destroying education. Perhaps he was right in sounding the alarm as loud as he did. However, the flip side of the negative impact of social media lies in other societies, including Arab ones.
The observer of public affairs in the Arab world falls in what might be called “the chasm” between what is published on social media and what is published through conventional media, whether written or visual. The latter has limits in terms of publishing that are restricted by written or customary objective and ethical laws, while the former is not bound by any laws, neither written nor ethical.
From here the chasm emerges as the legalized form of publishing cannot keep up with the uncontrolled one as, in some cases, social media uses traditional media as a source, but the usage is tainted with carelessness and irresponsibility. There are numerous examples that can help us discern the helplessness and perhaps frustration that drives the seasoned president of the United States to describe what is being published as “killing people.”
If we want to cite examples of such distortion, let us take a person or a political group living in a country outside their homeland and opposing their national regime. They broadcast rumors and misinformation, some of which with meticulous professionalism, in order to mislead the local community in their homeland under the banner of “amplifying the negative and neglecting the positive” in order to invoke internal sedition and create chaos, which will only lead to the destruction of the nations.
Perhaps the second example can be clearer with respect to what I wanted to refer to, which is the discord within OPEC Plus over oil production quotas. No sooner had the dispute surfaced, keeping in mind that disagreements are common among the members of this organization, until all hell broke loose in terms of denunciation, support, amplification, and abuse from people against this party or that, bidding to create public opinion that approves the idea of strife and quarrelling between siblings.
Such rabble-rousers will not spare any effort in inventing stories, tales, and leaks that are markedly ignorant or reflect a severe lack of self-confidence, only to claim that they are more patriotic than everybody else. The problem here lies in that some of these groups or individuals attract many followers due to the innate inclination of human beings to believe in black-and-white extremes rather than gray areas, even if these extremes are outright lies.
Sometimes, one receives information, news, or ideas from people whom one trusts in terms of their ability to judge matters, only to become perplexed as to how such people can participate in the propagation of such “nonsense.” However, we must remember that bad and false news spreads more quickly than true and plausible news, and, by extension, the loss of impartiality only becomes more prevalent.
Institutions, and even governments, are unable to find a bulwark against such a huge explosion of misinformation. Some opt for stiffening legislations, believing this to be a deterrent, which may be the case with public media, but not in private media, such as WhatsApp or TikTok, which cannot be legally monitored but remain the most harmful on the national and the personal levels. To compensate, we perhaps might need a two-pronged approach: the first is societal immunity, which is immunity jointly established by government, private agencies, and schools, and deals with false news, malicious rumors, defamation, and character assassination with necessary speed and efficiency. The second is personal immunity, which is created through training in schools and social platforms with the aim of developing a rational methodology based on logic and not on impression and prejudice. The goal is to have every individual impenetrable to mere hearsay or biases.
The continuation of the propagation of misleading news will slowly but surely lead to the fragmentation of the social fabric until its utter destruction, not to mention sowing doubts among nations at a critical stage as some opportunistic states are ready to jump on the opportunity to exploit any conflict for their own interests. Consequently, chaos will break out as everyone pays a heavy price.
Some of the people in power in certain positions are delighted to have “hired” people to broadcast the news they want and defame their opponents. This amounts to “ignorant delight” because there are others ready to be hired to promote the counter-argument; this is a double-edged sword that need to be weary from.
It is amazing that well-known personalities believing that they are “defending their homeland” participate in such campaigns while, in fact, they are disgracing their homeland’s reputation and degrading its status. Accomplishments are usually there for all to see, and only the blind can deny them. In our Arab space, bullying, arrogance, and defamation take place on social media, leaving distress and venom in its wake that poison and weaken societies.
Finally, in addition to the destructive political and economic dimension, studies inform us that those who are addicted to using the internet and social media are more susceptible to certain mental illnesses, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, or even anxiety, as well as other afflictions, like attention deficiency, isolation, and introversion.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.