Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In 2014, Social Media Highlighted An Absurd War Of Words

For two months of 2014, social media became nothing short of insufferable. Operation Protective Edge, Israel's third foray into Gaza since 2006, was accompanied by a war for public opinion that was fierce, dirty, and headache-inducing for even the most Zen of analysts.

This blog participated in the conversation by making a number of pleas to shift the conversation towards a discussion of new ways to move past suffering on the ground. It was heartening to see voices from all sides - and some from no side at all - respond positively to this call. Months later, we have an opportunity to look more objectively and more systematically at the way the war of words  played out over social media.

There is extensive debate about whether social media has any effect whatsoever on political outcomes (see here for a great and concise piece). But whether or not it changes politics, it seems significant that at no other point in history has the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian clash of narratives been so intrusive into the daily experience of bystanders. True, anyone can narrowcast and interact only with people with whom she agrees. But when news is plastered across the social media pages - even for those who are not politically active - it is hard to ignore. By August 2011, 81% of the American public had followed Operation Protective Edge at least "a little." Conventional media sites as well as social media sites from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter were plastered up and down with pro- and anti- articles. Both narratives went head to head with each other with middle ground or apathetic members of these sites dragged into the melee.

Stated in the most charitable way possible, this discussion was an absolute and complete train wreck.

In 2014, social media highlighted the catastrophic failure of narratives to navigate the complex history and politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides offer clean and neat versions of the conflict on their own. But put two opposing activists in a Twitter fight with each other (please don't actually do that), and the result is total discursive chaos. Proponents of each narrative talk completely past each other using stylized and often ideological concepts with little relevance to facts on the ground. The worst make ad hominem attacks and lock horns in a race to the bottom rather than reach any semblance of common understanding. And outsiders to the conflict bear witness to this tragic excuse for discourse.

Ridiculous Twitter fights, unfortunately, will not remain in 2014. However, they will continue to showcase the sheer absurdity of getting so caught up in a narrative that we lose sight of facts on the ground. Perhaps over time, the showcasing of this absurdity on social media will highlight the antiquated nature of the conversation as well. When grown adults bicker like children, while real children are kidnapped, shot, and killed, there is no choice but to change course. Such a change requires recognizing the futility of the lose-lose status quo, and taking steps to engage honestly, listen, and identity opportunities for reconciliation rather than exploit pain and suffering for quick but Pyrrhic victories.

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