All tools can be used positively or negatively
In classical times kingdoms built castles and forts at strategic locations as a defensive measure against a strong invading army laying siege. The strategy of the siege was quite simple: block all routes of supplies to the castle or fort and wait until the people inside starts dying from hunger. In most situations invader would have strategic advantage because of access to food supplies. In contemporary times superpowers introduced modern methods of siege in the form of economic sanctions. First successful siege was exercised on Iraq when its governments’ ability to access food and medicine was limited by sanctions. The rulers did not suffer much from those sanctions and could sustain it for as long as they could find partners that were willing to provide them supplies in the disguise of oil for food programme. That economic siege created a humanitarian crisis for innocent people of Iraq that had no control on the acts of dictator Saddam Hussain. During those sanctions an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children died because of lack of medicine and nutrition. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously attributed the death of those children as a collateral damage. Next siege was laid at Iran because of her alleged nuclear programme to develop weapons of mass destruction. Again those that were running the state apparatus were not much affected but the people suffered hardship.
The idea of these economic sieges is that the masses frustrated by these sanctions would rise up against the regime and overthrow it. So far these tactics have not produced the desired results, except enriching some people and corporations, but has inflicted misery on humanity at large. An interesting aspect of these modern sieges is that until few days ago this has been a one way traffic, originating from the West and affecting people of the under developed and developing world. It seems that the era of economic sanctions is about to end as West for the first time is faced with the consequence of facing sanctions imposed by Russia to protect her strategic interests in Crimea.
Another form of siege is cultural and social in the name of human rights and freedom of expression. Social media has become new tools of exploitation by state as well as non-state actors to seek anarchy or regime change. Newspaper reports in last one year are filled with information that US intelligence agencies sought data and information from social media companies including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Apple, and Twitter. It is anybody’s guess how this information was used but we do know that social media has been aggressively used to promote small street protests in Tehran, Rio, Istanbul, Beijing, Cairo and Moscow as major events representative of majority’s voice. On the other hand protests in London against tuition rise; in USA when Occupy Wall Street movement was initiated or EU street protests against austerity did not get as much attention on social or mainstream media in the West. In undeveloped countries with fragile democracies like Tunisia, Egypt, and South America social media was able to help in regime change without changing the status quo or allowing emergence of a deep rooted ideology which could reform these societies for betterment of their people. West expects all countries to allow unrestricted and uncontrolled access to social media companies even when it has come to light that data from these companies was used for covert planning.
It is not only the legitimate state apparatus that use social media for propaganda, non-state actors have also used it for propaganda and recruitment purposes. It is just a matter of click and play for anyone to create social media pages and start posting anything without regard to its effect on small children and vulnerable segments of the society which are most affected from these actions. West has developed mechanisms and rules that protect their citizens from inappropriate content. For instance, beheading videos. But it is unfortunate that hate speech and inappropriate videos are not removed by social media when it is posted in countries that have weak policing and regulatory environment.
Social media has the power and the potential to be a force of anarchy and chaos as much as education and bringing people together. I am a proponent of freedom of speech and expression. I advocate for all voices to be heard in the public square. My fear that the abuse of social media by covert state apparatus and non-state actors could force individual countries to feel they are culturally and socially besieged by these platforms that some consider are part of great game of the West. Recent banning of twitter in Turkey and YouTube in Pakistan are two examples to consider. China has also forced Google and other companies to comply with its censorship rules.
In the absence of a multilateral framework these developments could impede the free flow of information. One way to tackle this developing crisis is to create an international charter of social interaction that applies to these new media platforms. Just like we have earlier developed charter of human rights. This social communication charter should offer a broader outline that must be adhered to by all participants whether governments or corporations. All members of UN should become signatory to the charter and abide by it.
One immediate issue that needs to be tackled is anonymous Facebook pages and social media accounts that engage in political activism. The lack of transparency of who is promoting a certain political ideology and agenda raises doubts about the fairness of the medium. At the same time it is also true that authoritarian regimes punish voices of dissent and need some protection. Whistle blower protections laws available in developed countries could be one model that can be adopted to ensure that legitimate voices of protest are not gagged or chocked while ensuring transparency of those behind political movements.
Another issue is protection of small children from exposure to damaging content. Content rating system, used for movies for instance, has to be introduced in the social media and person posting the content should be asked to provide rating info. People that engage in repeated violation of these ratings rules should be banned from opening social media account as a first step and severe criminal punishment as subsequent penalties. These are all economically viable options and do not create exorbitant incremental costs for social media companies. But being a responsible corporate citizen is important for social media companies to remain a driving force of bringing the world community closer to each other with greater confidence and trust.
All tools can be used positively or negatively. It is not the tool that is bad but rather weakness of human society to contain the negative side. We should not blame social media platforms for any ills emanated from it but our collective failure to regulate it properly.