The Facebook Fight Over Gaza

via AOL
Wither the days of the inherently apolitical, escapist social network.

While Egyptian mediators scramble to broker an end to Israel’s ground campaign in Gaza, both sides’ more vocal advocates continue to wage their own wars using the Internet, recently expanding their informal political campaigns to such popular platforms as Facebook and Twitter.

As of Tuesday afternoon, McClatchy’s D.C. Bureau reported that more than 70,000 Facebook users (and an additional few thousand Twitter subscribers) had “donated” their statuses — the 170-character updates that adorn the top of every user’s profile page — to QassamCount, a third-party application that tracks Hamas missile strikes. Named after the missile model Hamas allegedly prefers, the application updates a donor’s Facebook status whenever Hamas militants attack Israeli targets or kill Israeli civilians.

Pro-Palestinian users, however, soon countered with a status application of their own — “STOP Israel’s War Crimes in Gaza,” which, according to its Facebook page, has drawn more than 74,000 “fans” since its inception earlier this month. In total, AllFacebook, an unofficial blog that shares its subject’s namesake, estimates that group and status subscribers on both sides of the “Facebook Gaza War” would top the one million mark before the week’s end.

To many new media analysts, this sudden increase in Facebook-based social activism has some promise. A slew of recent international events — from the attacks in Mumbai to the war in Gaza — have solidified Facebook and Twitter, among other platforms, as valuable information tools — egalitarian channels through which users may share first-hand accounts and unfiltered information with the masses. And that reach, as Rita King, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, told Time magazine earlier this week, has opened new doors for cross-cultural dialog: “The Internet removes the threat of physical harm and thus offers an unprecedented opportunity for the development of new ideas for conflict mediation,” she told reporters.

Unfortunately, the “Facebook Gaza War” has instead exposed the nastier side of social networking. Since pro-Israel and pro-Palestine Facebook users began vying virtually earlier this month, Facebook moderators have fielded a host of complaints, ranging from requests to police ethnocentric or discriminatory remarks to allegations that opposition groups were sabotaging profiles, hacking and editing group discussions and breaking applications — behaviors that hardly qualify as instructive, albeit ripe for conflict mediation.

And the Facebook fight isn’t an isolated exception, either. According to the BBC, similar discrepancies elsewhere on the Web — from the discussion board below Israel’s state-sponsored Youtube channels to self-admitted “anti-defamation” Internet interest groups that police Web sites — have skewed information and provoked further verbal confrontation.

Of course, it is impossible (if not wholly undesirable) to prohibit such Internet speech, no matter how hateful or unhelpful. But insofar as Facebook is concerned, college students and interest group surrogates alike must sign a Terms of Service agreement prior to creating a profile, which means they are bound to the rule that permits Facebook to delete content “which might be offensive, illegal, or that might violate the rights, harm, or threaten the safety of users or others.” But while it remains unclear whether Facebook has censored questionable Gaza content, the point is perhaps moot; social network activism, no matter what its circumstantial import, is probably here to stay. How Facebook — and other — social platforms intend to moderate it, however, is perhaps a forthcoming war in and of itself.

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