It’s brutal, it’s honest and it’s not Twitter’s fault

It’s brutal, it’s honest and it’s not Twitter’s fault

‘You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others’

It’s difficult to think of a more obvious contravention of Twitter’s terms of use than the Israeli Defence Force’s live blogging and tweeting of its attack on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Of course, contravening T+Cs is far from the most significant of the things the IDF did that day and we’re not debating the merits of the attack itself.

But the use of social media in this way is disturbing. The whole checklist of social media – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube – were corralled together in a way to make any digitally-savvy brand proud. They were the deployed to declare war and provide a running commentary on the subsequent attacks. It’s as vivid a piece of digital propaganda as you can think of.

There is, at least, a brutal honesty about it – and it may well be the most significant change to war reporting since the Vietnam War, when TV pictures horrified US viewers and domestic support for the war collapsed. Now we have the uneasy sight of a fighting army offering live commentary on its own war with open threats, reports from combatants, and pictures of victims and bombed out buildings. The escalation in the social media war, as both sides posted emotive pictures of attacks and casualties will, if the air raid sirens are any guide, be escalated into a real war.

It poses tricky questions for the media companies hosting all this. YouTube briefly took down one video of an attack, citing the terms that forbid videos showing violence – and then put it back up under the clause that allows such videos if they have news value.

Twitter and Facebook too face an uncomfortable time – the trolls facing arrest for abusing celebrities suddenly look rather small beer.  All those companies have courted governments to get them to use their services as a way of legitimising their offer and embedding them at the highest levels. If those companies had significant input into the content those governments then put on those platforms, then there would be uproar – Facebook defining government messages? Yet when the logic of that freedom of expression goes this far, then we’re all conflicted. What if Twitter had taken down the IDF account just after the first threat to Hamas leaders not to put ‘their head above ground’? While we’re horrified at the content, isn’t the openness somehow important? Is a war reported by non-combatants easier to stomach than one reported by the military? There are no attempts to give the reports balance, of course, but that’s obvious to all.

The social media companies are under pressure over these contraventions of their own etiquettes, but any moves by them to ban the content would have been the harder road for them to travel. They could certainly have debated their position more openly. But Twitter didn’t start a war, Facebook didn’t kill anyone. The use of tools of conversation for confrontation instead is not to be welcomed but, once again, it’s not the messenger who’s at fault.


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