I know I am only an armchair warrior, but I have lived long enough to say that I have never experienced such a war. Since the start of The Israel-Hamas war on the 7th of October, it was not confined to jet fighters and tanks but has taken a form all of its own. It is a war of words, emotions, blame, and counterclaims that are mostly unsubstantiated, reason-lacking, and littered with opinions void of any intellectual substance. We are getting carried away by the emotion of the occasion.
Not only in the physical world, but this war has taken over the virtual world like a hurricane. Social Media is abuzz with rumours, abuse, and misinformation. More than likely, it will be won or lost on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. YouTube, Photoshop and imaging AI never had it so good. Unsuspecting, our posts give their CEOs power to regulate us without liability to them. We forget Social media is funded through trading personal data to advertisers. Algorithms categorise opinions, and that personal data is then used to target users with information, or disinformation, tailored to their personality” – in other words, to send people content which is centred on ideas they already agree with. Ideas are reaffirmed rather than challenged; accordingly, social media groups are affirmed in their apparent objective truth. This affirmation increases hostility when those groups are exposed to those who do not share their view.
Sharing has taken on a new dimension. In this war, it is not to amuse or help others, but it gives us status and adds importance that we are in the know while we give away our identity. Yes, sharing means we are connected to the world and how we perceive it. No fear or possible bias could stop it; pivoting on one word in a headline could impact our emotional factor, which decides which side we are on in this war. Physical violence on our streets is not far behind perpetrated by these platforms. Unfortunately, a source of progress, they are not.
Here we are; we thought only bombs could hurt us. For instance, the Christchurch gunman in New Zealand, not long ago, had spent years on social media trying to advance the cause of white power. His social media posts, he eventually decided, were not enough; now it was "time to make a real-life effort post." He murdered 51 people. The repercussions mean we are not safe anywhere; the war on our street would continue long after the shelling stops.
There are no sides or causes to consider, neither toleration nor moderation. There is no in-between but total and absolutist blame. Governments, the press and the rest of the world are divided between East and West; each side blames the one side even for atrocities committed by the other. The word 'counter' is everywhere—counter-blame, counter-proof, counter-pro, counter-statement, and all the Counter you can think of. 'Viral' is not far behind. It is not fashionable to be moderate or compromising, and remaining silent is not an option.
Free speech is paramount to the value of Democracy; it was supposed to bring out the truth, but it is morally bankrupt in this war. It has taken a hammering in the virtual space of the internet; Democracy is morphing into totalitarianism. Worse, we see it replaced by distortion and lies online; both could mean we face backlash and possible reprisals.
And it is spreading. Since October 7, more than 150 companies and leading Brands have made statements condemning Hamas’s attacks on Israel. Those with branch offices in Israel have taken pages in the press advertising the fact. Some employees and customers have started expecting or demanding that companies speak out on social issues and take a stand. They are expected to go public on Social Media. This would inevitably create an environment where their employees, with different opinions, are barred from deviating from that position. It also puts heavy pressure on companies and employees to carefully navigate the tricky terrain in their public statements as the war continues. And again, falling in the middle is not an option. Viewpoint diversity and individuality are not applauded but are vilified and attacked. Consequently, social media can easily collapse into a marketplace filled not with ideas but with intellectual thuggery.
In this jungle of posts, the truth is getting lost. The constant bombarding of videos and articles does not intend to differentiate between truth value and emotional responses. The primary objective is to compete in the popularity stakes. Emotional content is easier to understand and connect with, and that is what dominates digital platforms. The urge to generate emotional reactions and seek the approval of one’s followers and friends results in intellectual debate being pushed to the margins. The legitimacy of these posts is given by the number of 'shares' or 'likes', so the mechanism of searching for the truth becomes irrelevant. Attention-grabbing is the driver, so the ideal intention of free speech to seek knowledge gets lost on social media. Moreover, Ideas are global, and the sheer size of social media makes it impossible to search for the truth. Between this polluted content, it is also impossible to establish any form of discussion on the validity or otherwise of this war.
False posts on social media can quickly gain attention and be shared widely, strengthening the voices spreading misinformation. They can deceive and mislead individuals, distorting their perceptions of reality and shaping public opinion based on incorrect or manipulated information, drowning out accurate information and creating a distorted narrative. Moreover, false posts on social media platforms might discourage individuals from engaging in free speech, especially if they fear backlash or becoming targets of online harassment based on their views. This chilling effect can hinder open and diverse dialogue.
Censorship is undemocratic and has no grounds in Liberal thinking public where even racists have rights. No perfect censor can filter out true or false; to do so can only lead to suppressing ideas, which can kill individual thought. We all have the right to drive a car, so we all have the right to pollute the air. Moreover, we relish commanding a 'like' to our unchecked posts, irrespective of whether we unsuspectingly echo fibs or misinformation. The most important is popularity. Social media was prophesied as a digital leap in democratic speech, a marketplace of ideas or a source of communication, sadly, no longer.
On an individual basis, self-discipline is essential; we either become more discerning in learning media literacy or rely on fact-checking websites or organisations that investigate and verify the accuracy of claims made in news and other sources. Such as the CRAAP test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose) to assess the quality and reliability of information.
On the other hand, especially in this war, censorship is required to prevent forms of hate speech that target marginalised communities which may need to be restricted to maintain social harmony and ensure equal participation of all citizens in public discourse. Striking a balance between protecting individuals from harm and preserving free speech is crucial. It is evident by the fact that Antisemitic hate crime has continued to soar in London, with 408 offences recorded so far this October, compared with 28 in the same period last year. Islamophobic hate crime is also on the rise, up from 65 offences last October to 174 so far this month.
When the guns fall silent, the war of words will go on. It is crucial, however, to strike a balance between combating misinformation and preserving the democratic values of free speech and diverse opinions. Achieving this balance requires ongoing dialogue, learning, and continuous improvement from social media platforms, as well as active engagement from users and society as a whole. And, in this war, only History will be the adjudicator in this quagmire of truth and unsubstantiated claims to bring justice to the victims of the war.