Information Technology and Ethics/Social Media and Conflicts

Social media plays a massive role in today's society, offering users the ability to share content online, connect with friends, and browse content. The simple definition of social media is a platform created for people to interact, share, create, and discuss in virtual communities. There are many variations of social media, including discussion forums, photo sharing applications, professional networking applications, microblogging, and entertainment sites like YouTube. Social media was first created in 1997 with a site called “Six Degrees,” where users were able to create a profile and make friends on the platform. Society has come a long way since the inception of social media, to the point where it seems almost impossible to live without it. It has enabled users to create movements, collaborate towards a common goal, influence government officials, and even overthrow regimes, all without coordinating face-to-face.

This dramatic increase in social media use does come with its fair share of impacts on a global scale. While social media is great for bringing people together, as seen in the Arab Spring, it can also be used to incite conflict and promote propaganda. Disinformation campaigns run constantly, promoting false information to incite conflict within populations. The content shown to users online is formulated to their interests and groups, which results in people seeing content that fits their agenda, regardless of whether it is correct or violent. The spread of fake news across social media, promoted by high-influence individuals, leads to others following and creating conflict based on false information. While social media can be used for many great things, there are many issues, such as misinformation and conflicts, that need to be resolved. [1][2]

History edit

Although social media use in conflicts is a recent phenomenon, its history of using communication technology during war and conflict dates back centuries. Each major technological advancement, from the printing press to the telegraph, radio, and television, has made it possible for people to communicate information and influence public opinion in ways that were once impossible. Social media's modern history can be traced back to the early 2000s when sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube gained popularity. However, the widespread use of social media in conflicts has been more recent.

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century enabled the widespread production and transmission of information, including newspapers and pamphlets critical in propagating revolutionary ideas during the American Revolution. The invention of the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century enabled quick communication over large distances and was widely utilized during the American Civil War to relay military orders and news updates. During World War I and World War II, radio broadcasts became essential for transmitting news and propaganda to both soldiers and civilians. Radio was also used to promote ideological ideas during the Cold War. Television emerged as a major medium during the Vietnam War, giving images of the war's brutality and changing public opinion. The US military exploited satellite technology and live television broadcasts to affect the public image of the Gulf War.

One of the first examples of social media being used in a conflict occurred during Iran's Green Movement in 2009. Iranians used Twitter to spread information about the government crackdown and organize anti-disputed presidential election protests. Twitter became a vital tool for Iranians to bypass government restrictions and share information with the rest of the world.

The Arab Spring uprisings in 2010 were another landmark point in the use of social media in conflicts. Activists used social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests and exchange information about government persecution. Social media was also utilized to highlight human rights violations and rally international support for the protests.

Social media played an important role in the Syrian civil war that began in 2011. Syrian activists used sites like Facebook and Twitter to spread information about the government's abuses and organize anti-regime protests. Civilians used social media to capture the war's human toll, posting videos and photographs of the destruction and violence they observed.

More recently, social media has been used in conflicts such as Myanmar's Rohingya crisis to propagate misinformation and encourage violence against minority populations. Similarly, social media has been utilized in Yemen's ongoing conflict to highlight human rights violations and raise awareness of the situation.[3]

Role of Social Media in Conflicts edit

Social media has had a significant impact on many aspects of society, including international conflicts. One of the most notable ways in which social media has affected conflicts is by democratizing information and news reporting, allowing attention on previously underreported or suppressed issues. This has given marginalized groups a powerful voice in the face of tyrants and oppressive regimes, bypassing traditional media organizations that have always controlled the narrative. These organizations sometimes have been active participants in peddling state narratives, thus skewing public opinion in favor of the powerful. Social media has been crucial in countering such propaganda and wresting power back to the common people. However, social media has also been used to spread disinformation, incite violence, and manipulate public opinion.

One of the positive impacts of social media in conflicts is that it has amplified voices and helped raise awareness, allowing individuals from different cultures, backgrounds, and socio-economic statuses to connect with each other and gain a better understanding of different peoples and their struggles. Social media has also allowed individuals to come forward with their lived experiences, providing a more individual perspective on conflicts. Such interactions help create informed and nuanced opinions, keeping in view the human experiences and suffering. Such activism helps formulate public opinion, which can create pressure groups to influence policy decisions. This can help in favorable policy changes or increased humanitarian aid.[4]

In all major world uprisings and conflicts, social media has played a pivotal role, becoming an essential tool in the hands of protesters and activists. Real-time information sharing on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and Instagram has allowed protesters to organize and disseminate updates, allowing for smoother and coordinated mobilization. Organizers can coordinate logistics, such as meeting points and routes for protests, using social media. This has also allowed flexibility and unpredictability, making it difficult for authorities to clamp down on protesters. The viral nature of social media has allowed the spread of such information to a larger audience through targeted amplification. This has helped attract more supporters and participants in ensuing protests.[5] However, the usage of social media in conflicts has resulted in responses from governments and regimes aimed at suppressing such protests. In many areas like the Kashmir and Iran protest movements, authorities have stifled dissent by imposing blanket bans on the internet for prolonged periods, making it difficult for the spread of information from the ground zero.[6][7]

IIn conflict zones, social media has very real-world observable impacts that could be for good. However, social media also has the potential to do a lot of harm in conflict zones. Social media allows malicious actors to spread propaganda, as we have already seen how the viral nature of social media can be used to spread a message. People spreading propaganda also use these methods to spread misleading information. The aim of such propaganda is to deceive the common populace by concocting facts and presenting misinformation cooked in half-truths. The propaganda finds traction in echo chambers as it confirms the biases that particular group holds, making conflict resolution very difficult. Social media platforms' algorithms are designed to give more visibility to emotionally charged content to drive engagement, further spreading such propaganda. The lack of immediate consequences as a result of the anonymous nature of social media allows such behaviors to foster and grow. Governments and state actors also use social media to further their propaganda as part of a broader war strategy.[8][9]

In addition to state entities, extremist groups have also used social media to recruit naïve individuals to increase their numbers. Extremist groups use targeted propaganda aimed at influencing young people to subscribe to their ideologies. Such vulnerable people, especially from conflict areas with preconceived biases about other groups, are easy preys for such groups. Extremist groups have also used social media to propagate dangerous articles about making explosives and training material.[10]

Social media platforms are a rich source of information, and enemies may utilize them to gather intelligence about their targets. They can, for example, monitor the profiles and activities of critical persons, or government agencies to gather sensitive information, detect weaknesses, or follow travels. This information can also be utilized by adversaries to conduct social engineering attacks to infiltrate a sensitive facility. Spy agencies use this data to launch catfishing attacks on lonely border soldiers to extract sensitive location information. In addition, geo tagged information help adversaries in establishing movements of their targets, identify places they frequent, or even uncover undisclosed locations. Social media data can help locate potential vulnerabilities, and pinpoint individuals who may be more susceptible to manipulation or recruitment.[11]

Overall, social media has played a complicated and multidimensional role in global conflicts. While technology has facilitated beneficial change and increased awareness, it has also aided in the spread of misinformation, violence, and divisiveness. As a result, while examining social media's involvement in conflicts, it is critical to evaluate both the positives and negatives.

Examples of Social Media in Conflicts edit

Social media has been utilized in numerous conflicts around the world. Here are some examples

Civil War in Syria[12] edit

Syria's crisis, which began in 2011, has been one of the deadliest of the twenty-first century. In the early phases of the crisis, activists used social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to film the violence and gather support. Social media was also used to coordinate protests and spread news about government persecution.

Arab Spring[13] edit

Social media played a crucial role in the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in late 2010 and swiftly expanded throughout the Arab world. Activists used platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to plan protests, communicate information about government persecution, and highlight human rights violations.

Ukrainian Revolution[14] edit

In 2014, social media played a crucial part in the protests that led to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster. Activists used platforms like Twitter and Facebook to exchange information and organize protests, and social media was crucial in capturing police violence and human rights violations.

Propaganda by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)[3] edit

ISIS used social media to distribute propaganda and recruit new members. Twitter and YouTube were used to transmit recordings of beheadings and other violent acts, as well as to convey extremist beliefs and inspire others to join the group.

The Rohingya crisis[15] edit

The crisis in Myanmar has seen the use of social media to propagate misinformation and encourage violence against minority communities. Facebook has been especially powerful, with false news and hate speech extensively disseminated on the network.

2016 US Presidential Election edit

Russian operatives used social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread disinformation and create disputes among American voters.

Positive and Negative Impacts edit

Social media has become an essential part of modern culture, serving as a means of communication, information sharing, and self-expression. While social media can have a constructive impact on conflicts, such as empowering communities to stage peaceful protests or giving voice to marginalized groups, it can also have a negative impact on disputes, escalating them. In this response, we will explore the positive and negative effects of social media on conflicts with relevant examples.[16]

Positive Effects: edit

Mobilizing communities for nonviolent protests: edit

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in coordinating the Arab Spring protests that began in Tunisia in 2011 and spread to other Middle Eastern and North African countries. These platforms enabled people to share their ideas and advocate for change, leading to the toppling of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and social and political progress in other nations.

Empowering marginalized groups: edit

Social media has given voice to marginalized groups, allowing them to express their perspectives, tell their stories, and connect with like-minded individuals. The #MeToo campaign, which started in 2017, utilized social media to raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault, encourage victims to share their stories, and hold perpetrators accountable. This movement led to global discussions about sexual misconduct and resulted in policy reforms in various workplaces and industries.

Facilitating dialogue and conflict resolution: edit

Social media provides a platform for people with differing opinions to engage in constructive discussions, leading to improved understanding and peace-building. In Northern Ireland, the "Northern Ireland, Our Future Together" Facebook group has brought together individuals from diverse backgrounds to discuss the future of the region, promoting constructive dialogues between people with opposing political and cultural perspectives.

Negative Effects: edit

Dissemination of disinformation and propaganda: edit

Social media can be used to spread misleading information and divisive content, exacerbating conflicts and creating tensions. During the 2016 US presidential election, the Russian government utilized social media platforms to disseminate disinformation and propaganda, leading to greater polarization and distrust in the political system[16]


Amplification of hate speech and incitement to violence: edit

Social media can amplify hate speech and incitement to violence, intensifying conflicts. Hate speech and incitement to violence transmitted through social media platforms contributed to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar, and Facebook was criticized for failing to prevent the spread of hate speech and misinformation that furthered the persecution of Rohingya Muslims.

Enabling cyberbullying and harassment: edit

Social media platforms can enable cyberbullying and harassment, causing harm to individuals and communities. The Gamergate issue, which began in 2014, involved the online harassment and intimidation of women in the gaming industry. This harassment highlighted the need for improved protocols and protections against internet harassment.

In conclusion, social media can have both positive and negative impacts on conflicts. While it can be used to mobilize communities for peaceful protests, empower marginalized groups, and facilitate dialogue and conflict resolution, it can also escalate conflicts by disseminating misinformation and propaganda, amplifying hate speech and incitement to violence, and enabling cyberbullying and harassment. It is essential to recognize these consequences and appropriately use social media to promote constructive dialogues, understanding, and peace-building.

Ethical Considerations edit

The use of social media in conflicts has become increasingly common around the world, with activists and governments alike utilizing these platforms for mobilization, communication, and propaganda. While social media can be a powerful tool for promoting social change and drawing attention to human rights abuses, it also raises a number of ethical considerations that must be taken into account.

Freedom of Expression[17] edit

Freedom of expression is a right that Americans hold dear. As one of the founding concepts behind the creation of the nation, freedom of expression has always been a subject of scrutiny when it comes to how much should be given and how much should be moderated. Regardless of whether you are within or outside the U.S., similar discussions have been held as to how much freedom one can have, especially when it comes to social media spaces.

On the one hand, social media can be an important tool for promoting freedom of expression, enabling individuals and groups to express their views and opinions, and mobilize for peaceful purposes. However, the freedom of expression can also be used to promote hate speech, spread false information, and incite violence. This raises the question of how to balance the right to free expression with the need to protect individuals and groups from harm.

"Social media platforms make difficult decisions about the speech they permit and the speech they remove from their platforms. They permit heads of state to propagate ideas that are blocked when expressed by ordinary citizens. They censor activists' demands for independent states, flagging them as hate speech or terrorist content." Social media companies do this through the use of built-in algorithms that allow the companies to search through a myriad of concepts, including popular terms being engaged with, how users respond to arguments, how photographs are shared, or what abusive content is being reported. In addition, the algorithms allow companies to moderate all content, with the ability to suppress or outright remove posts from circulation.

"This power that social media companies wield over speech online, and therefore over public discourse more broadly, is being recognized as a new form of governance. It is uniquely powerful because the norms favored by social media companies can be enforced directly through the architecture of social media platforms. There are no consultations, appeals, or avenues for challenge. There is little scope for users to reject a norm enforced in this manner. While a blatantly illegitimate norm may result in uproar, choices made by social media companies to favor existing local norms that violate international human rights norms are common enough."

Looking at it from a global perspective, freedom of expression on social media is a complex issue that is influenced by a variety of legal, ethical, and cultural factors. For example, the legal frameworks in different countries can have a significant impact on the extent to which freedom of expression is protected on social media. In countries with more restrictive laws, social media companies may be required to comply with government demands to remove content, even if it would be protected under the laws of other countries. Furthermore, while social media companies do have the power to moderate content, this power is not unlimited. Companies must balance the need to protect individuals from harm with the right to free expression, and must navigate complex questions about what constitutes hate speech or incitement to violence (if those are concepts they wish to prevent from existing on the site). Additionally, the norms and values of social media companies are shaped by public opinion, and companies may adjust their content moderation policies in response to pressure from users or advocacy groups. As such, freedom of expression on social media is an issue that is constantly evolving and requires ongoing attention and consideration.[18]

Responsibility of Social Media Companies and Users edit

Social media companies have a responsibility to moderate content and prevent the spread of harmful information on their platforms. This can include removing posts that promote hate speech or incite violence, as well as banning users who violate their terms of service. However, the responsibility of social media companies is not always clear-cut, and decisions about content moderation can be influenced by political considerations, cultural norms, and financial incentives.

This moderation is required for the sites to function publicly, but require a large amount of scrutiny when it comes to moderation. This is the price that is paid for people to enjoy a platform through which they can communicate through. "Facebook, Twitter and Google have not only made clear commitments to act responsibly, they actually enhance the citizenship status of their users in many ways, e.g. by offering a platform for democracy activists. Deficiencies and contradictions also become visible, e.g. SNS providers inhibit citizenship by failing to provide sufficient privacy protection."[19] This is, of course, done at varying levels of moderation. Twitter is known to have lower community standards, especially post-Elon era where freedom of speech is emphasized, when compared to other platforms (like TikTok) where offensive content is take down almost immediately. However, it is important to note that you can not solely rely on the companies when trying to ensure ethical usage of social media. The responsibility is also in the users hands. Social media users should utilize the same ethics and principles that they have grown up with to ensure as functional of an online conversation as possible. Not only in what one posts, but also in everything they see on the applications as well. Additionally, the users need to remain mindful of what they are taking in online, as it is easy to fall into an echo chamber of ideas and have one's thoughts infinitely reinforced.[20]

At the current moment, social media networks are all self-regulated. This is due to the nature of the sites being owned by companies, and therefore not able to be regulated by United States government (where a majority of these companies are based in). The United States has ruled that social media is to be treated identically as that of printed media, which gives the sites incredible deference to the speech protections of the First Amendment rights. This deference means that, as a whole, online communication is unregulated.[21]

Social media companies have a responsibility to moderate content and prevent the spread of harmful information on their platforms. This can include removing posts that promote hate speech or incite violence, as well as banning users who violate their terms of service. However, the responsibility of social media companies is not always clear-cut, and decisions about content moderation can be influenced by political considerations, cultural norms, and financial incentives. It is also important to note that social media companies have faced criticism for not doing enough to prevent the spread of misinformation and disinformation on their platforms, especially in the context of elections and public health. Additionally, the algorithms that social media companies use to promote content and target advertisements can reinforce existing biases and contribute to the spread of extremist views. It is therefore crucial for social media companies to continuously evaluate their policies and practices to ensure that they are promoting a safe and healthy online environment.

Surveillance and censorship edit

Social media can be used as a tool for surveillance and censorship by governments and other actors. This raises concerns about the protection of privacy and the right to free expression. Governments may use social media to monitor individuals and groups, and to restrict access to information or suppress dissent. In some cases, governments may even shut down social media platforms or block access to them entirely.

"Social media has become a significant source of information for U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the State Department are among the many federal agencies that routinely monitor social platforms, for purposes ranging from conducting investigations to identifying threats to screening travelers and immigrants. This is not surprising; as the U.S. Supreme Court has said, social media platforms have become “for many . . . the principal sources for knowing current events, . . . speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge” — in other words, an essential means for participating in public life and communicating with others."[22]

When it comes to the usage of social media by federal agencies, the United States has a plethora of agencies active. This includes: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of State (State Department), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), U.S. Postal Service (USPS), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), U.S. Marshals Service, and Social Security Administration (SSA). The purpose of these agencies existing on social media is many-fold. However, there are four main reasons for using social media. The first of these is for investigations. Social media is widely used throughout the United States by all types of people. This allows for agencies to use social media for all kinds of preventative measures, including preventing crime or terrorism, or even actually providing evidence for ongoing cases. Additionally, these agencies use social media for monitoring the situation throughout the United States. They monitor to detect threats and use social media as an "ear to the ground" to be aware of the situations breaking throughout the country. And finally, the agencies utilize social media as a tool for immigration and travel screening vetting. Primarily for the verification of information or evidence of security risks.[22]

It is important to note that while social media can be a powerful tool for communication and information sharing, it is also susceptible to abuse by governments and other actors seeking to surveil and censor individuals or groups. The use of social media by government agencies raises concerns about privacy and freedom of expression. In the United States, numerous federal agencies routinely monitor social media platforms for a range of purposes, from conducting investigations to identifying potential threats and screening immigrants and travelers. These agencies include the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Drug Enforcement Administration, among others. While the use of social media for investigative purposes may provide valuable information, it also raises concerns about potential violations of civil liberties and government overreach. Furthermore, the use of social media for surveillance and censorship by governments can have a chilling effect on free expression and democratic participation.

Disinformation and Propaganda edit

Social media can be used to spread false information and propaganda, which can be used to manipulate public opinion and exacerbate conflicts. This can include the spread of fake news, the use of bots and trolls to influence social media conversations, and the creation of fake social media accounts. The spread of disinformation and propaganda can undermine trust in democratic institutions and exacerbate existing conflicts.

As seen with the examples of social medias usage in conflict, it is important to be aware of the power social media has over people when used in a malicious manner. The terms "misinformation", "disinformation", and "propaganda" are occasionally used interchangeably due to their similar connotation. That is surrounding the spread of false or misleading messages under the guise of proper information. Stated otherwise, this can be seen as information that contradicts or distorts common understandings of verifiable facts. However, it is important to make a distinction between these concepts and rumors or conspiracy theories. As the latter's definitions do not hinge on the truth value of the claims being made.[23]

Bias and Discrimination edit

Social media can also perpetuate bias and discrimination, including racism, sexism, and homophobia. This can include the spread of harmful stereotypes, the creation of online echo chambers, and the amplification of hate speech. Social media companies have a responsibility to ensure that their platforms do not perpetuate bias or discrimination, and to take steps to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

However, it is important to note that social media may not necessarily perpetuate bias and discrimination, but rather reflect existing biases and discrimination in society. Some may argue that social media can also be used to challenge and combat biases and discrimination by providing a platform for marginalized voices and facilitating discussions and education on diversity and inclusion.

Future Implications edit

Social media has played a significant role in conflicts and events that have led to violence and riots. During the Arab Spring, social media was used to organize protests and demonstrations that resulted in the overthrow of leaders, leading to internet blackouts. Following this, governments have started monitoring social media platforms to predict when there will be unrest as a result of social media. Political campaigns also use social media's power to find target audiences to spread information and disinformation, which can impact the outcome of elections. Leaks and uncovered information on social media can spark movements online that result in large conflicts on a national scale, as seen in the 2016 US presidential election.

Social media algorithms have become increasingly sophisticated, leading to personalized content appearing on feeds across the world. Individuals are placed into groups based on their interests and perceived political positions, resulting in exposure to groups and movements that interest them, sparking large gatherings and conflict. As more people join online platforms, social media will facilitate more conflict, making it essential to understand the algorithms and mitigate disinformation from spreading on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Monitoring groups and organizations of interest is also an effective technique to limit social media's impact on conflicts. Being aware of plans and any possible violent outcomes allows for proactivity rather than reactivity with online movements. Properly managing elections assists in having control over any civil unrest or possible conflicts. Virtually every election these days will have voting actively monitored for everything from violence to fraud using a range of social media platforms.

To get ahead of social media conflict, there needs to be more awareness on platforms and better management of campaigns. By facilitating an early response for conflict, mitigating them is much easier. The usage of modern technology like artificial intelligence to scan social media platforms for conflicts to catch them before they get out of hand is critical. These technologies are being used to bring conflict together and can be used to catch it before it unfolds.[24] [25]

References edit

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