The dark side of social media

Andrew Lam says the power of social media now open to all means even fools can cause chaos in far-flung places, with only an ill-made video

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2012, 6:02pm

In 2010, Time magazine's prestigious Person of the Year title went to Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. He was the choice of the magazine's editors, though its readers picked Julian Assange, the founder of the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks.

"Facebook is now the third-largest country on earth and surely has more information about its citizens than any government does," the magazine noted. Assange, for his part, undermined nation states' public narratives by providing a platform where individuals can anonymously show their government's dark underbellies.

In 2011, a fruit vendor made the cut. Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian who set himself ablaze protesting at corruption, became literally the torch that lit the Arab spring revolution. Bouazizi's death was seen by many who had mobile phones and the videos kick-started the uprising.

This year, no doubt Time can add "Nakoula Basseley Nakoula", aka "Sam Bacile", as a contender. An unknown amateur filmmaker until this week, he fanned anti-America outrage in the Middle East with incendiary video clips of a US-made film that mocked and insulted the Prophet Mohammed.

Nakoula/Bacile is in hiding and may in fact be fictitious. Evidence now points to him as an Egyptian Coptic Christian who holds grudges against Islam.

The jury is out on who instigated the violence against US personnel in Libya, resulting in the death of the American ambassador and three others. The attack was carefully planned, it was reported, and not the mere work of angry protesters - but few doubt that the film had a direct effect in stoking anger in the Middle East.

In the global age, it seems that not only dictators or overzealous elected heads of state with the power of pre-emptive strikes can direct history to the edge of an abyss, but also fruit vendors and lousy filmmakers.

Even al-Qaeda, for all its planning and propaganda, hasn't achieved what the film and its 14-minute YouTube trailer has; quickly undermining much of the US' soft diplomacy in the region.

In a blog for The Boston Globe, a friend of slain ambassador Chris Stevens asked: "How could Chris Stevens die because of a YouTube clip?" Alas, the answer is: why not in our information age?

It is worth noting that within a day after the deaths in Libya, Apple launched its iPhone5. Through the digital world, people attain power to speak beyond their geographical confines. Erstwhile, unknown singers can become famous overnight with a well-placed YouTube video. And haters can pinch the right nerve endings at the most vulnerable time so American missions anywhere can go up in flames.

Nation states are stunned by the swiftness with which social media can change world events. Excited copycats are waiting in the wings. Why not make a false video showing Japanese killing Chinese on Diaoyu Islands? Why not show blurry videos of Pakistani soldiers raping Hindu women in Kashmir? The list is endless.

This moronic filmmaker has made his point. No longer do heads of state and terrorist organisations have a monopoly of power to press those dangerous buttons. Those buttons are available now for as little as US$199 for the latest iPhone.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media. His next book, Birds of Paradise Lost, is due out in 2013