Monday, October 31, 2011

The Scary Virtual World of “Me”

The offending images are everywhere. From graphic photos of dismembered bodies, to hanging limbs and gushing blood, to the last moaning breath of a shooting victim. Social media platforms have given people the chance to participate in the dissemination of news; but not all set limits when it comes to sharing information or images.

Ordinarily, I would be applauding this newfound freedom and I am known for my support of alternative news sources throughout my journalism career. My fascination with the Internet and the new possibilities it afforded media organizations go back to the early ‘90’s and the creation of CNN’s website which was then known as CNN Interactive. In 2001 when we learned that the 9/11 hijackers had planned and coordinated the terror attacks using regular on line chat rooms. My admiration of this medium and the newsgathering elements it offered us became intense. Shortly after the attacks on New York and Washington, Ossama Bin Laden switched his statements delivery method from faxes to video messages that his supporters would upload to the Internet. This helped spread his messages wider and much faster than ever before. It also made them easily available to us in the media as well.

Following the fall of Baghdad in 2004, when the hostage-taking business was flourishing in Iraq, the insurgents were recording their victims’ messages as well as their claims and demands and uploading them also to various websites. They built and maintained many of these sites right under the noses of counter-terrorism squads and the intelligence community.

Then in 2007, not long after the heinous Virginia Tech shooting, a student uploaded his mobile phone footage to the Internet and mesmerized the world. This ushered in a brand new era of citizen collaboration in newsgathering challenging the one-way traditional journalism we all had practiced to date.

We all know how popular social networks are around the world. We know how they gave a voice to the voiceless, literally. Without delving into the history of how we got here, let me just say that we can all express all kinds of opinions in favor or against anyone we want at any time we choose to. If we don’t, it’s not out of fear but out of respect to others and to ourselves. We can all show graphic images and offending footage without warning and without a disclaimer. Those who don’t share graphic material are guided by our own personal ethics, which vary in degree between one person and another as they vary between one organization and the other.

Having their own Facebook page and their own blog give people a false sense of celebrity and achievement. This virtual celebrity status is often enhanced by others treating the person like the celebrity or expert analyst s/he is pretending to be.

These offensive and sometimes irresponsible actions have started to have a negative effect on the very important conversations taking place on line right now. The noise is drowning out some important messages that desperately need to be shared especially in the Middle East.

The Arab Spring assisted by social media brought down dictators and tyrants but failed miserably to replace them by fresh new leaders who are ready, willing and able to move this region forward towards the bright future it deserves and needs. The Arab Spring along with social media gave birth overnight to fake pundits and virtual experts who are busy writing books and appearing on TV shows and world forums speaking about journalism and the future of media as if they have a clue. This virtual world that we have helped create has turned into a monster just like all those Halloween photos people are sharing – No, not sharing but rather forcing down our throat. My social media streams have an unhealthy share of people’s strange photos of themselves in silly costumes. Isn’t it time we discuss why we still celebrate this holiday anyway? Instead, we are too busy protecting our eyes and ears from the offences of John and Jane Doe who think they are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie not realizing - or realizing and not caring - that the only paparazzi chasing them are their own selves!

So, next time you see a photo or read a post, think twice before quickly saying you like it. Tell people when a post is too graphic to bear. And if your neighbors post vain weekend photos in an all-inclusive resort next door, don’t say, “Wow this looks amazing!” Also, cut back on the “You look gorgeous and oh so happy” when you know she’s neither. And please spare us the “My nephew is so smart, he’s the next Steve Jobs!” I strongly encourage you to say all these wonderful things only when you really mean them. It’s not that I don’t want you to be nice to people. I’m just worried that, unlike me, they’ll believe you!


Keep the conversation going...

Anonymous Keri said...


Some great points to ponder!

I worked for many years with international students studying here in the USA, and designated by the State Department to work with FLEX and YES scholarship students.

It is interesting to watch how things work -- from the eyes of Americans, from the eyes of people from other lands, and then to compare the views together.

9/11 was an interesting day in that regard. The years following, equally as interesting, and sometimes intense.

My most recent work is in social media, and I have edged back from being quite as involved culturally, internationally. Thank you for your words, and a few good reminders.


November 1, 2011 at 2:15 PM  

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