How social media is changing the way we see conflict

Sharing images through social media has armed a new generation of citizen witnesses to challenge our perception and awareness of human rights crimes. 

Kym Beeston
19 December 2014
destroyed ambulence shujaiyeh.jpg

A destroyed ambulence sits in Shujaiyeh, one of the many images that made up the social media war that erupted this summer during Israel's military offensive into Gaza. Wikipedia/Boris Neihaus. Some rights reserved.  

Traditional media have long held the monopoly over the way war and catastrophe is visually represented. Until recently, what we saw was essentially the preserve of a handful of brave photographers who dipped in and out of warzones, and the iconic image selected by editors most likely to capture the viewer’s attention (and therefore sell more newspapers.)

Today, things look very different: 350 million photographs are uploaded to Facebook every day, 27,800 photographs are shared on Instagram every minute, and 20% of all pictures in the history of the photograph were taken in the last two years. It is safe to say we are living in an electronic age dominated by visual, rather than written, communication.

Granted, much of this means banal snapshots of everyday life. But increasingly, ordinary citizens are using imagery–via their social media accounts–to document and raise awareness of conflicts, atrocities, and the suffering of distant others–and in turn, changing the way we visualise conflict. Smartphone technology has enabled so called ‘citizen camera witnesses’ to use their mobile phones to “produce incontrovertible public testimony to unjust and disastrous developments, in a critical bid to mobilise global solidarity through the affective power of the visual.” And social media has enabled the billion-plus social network users to take on their own editorial role: to ‘share’ witness by sharing, tweeting, and re-posting images that have caught their attention, and interact with these images in new and innovative ways.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has been particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. In Gaza, western interests, an engaged global audience, and the active use of photos by Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces to push their respective causes collide to produce a fertile visual ecology of the war.

In August 2014, when violence erupted yet again, more than ever before an all-out online image war broke out. The weapons of this war were the images of dead children like Shamia, a newborn who survived her mother’s death, only to die 4 days later when Israel is said to have cut electricity supplies to Gaza. They were the images of Israeli civilians gathering on hillsides to watch and cheer on the air strikes like a spectator sport, decked out with chairs and beers and snacks for the event. And they were the images of the ‘victory album’ distributed to Israeli soldiers, containing before and after scenes of Gaza City’s ravaged Shujaiyeh neighbourhood (subsequently leaked to the public).

The soldiers of this war were millions of social media users who saw these pictures, sharing them with their friends and followers, and weighing in with their opinions to create a parallel battlefield that gained a life of its own parallel to the more sanitised version of events that tend to be presented by traditional media. It was a war that gained traction when celebrities jumped on board, such as Antony Bourdain, who tweeted a picture of a dead child on a Gazan beach, which was subsequently re-tweeted over 15,000 times.

Whilst Israel might have won against Hamas’s rocket arsenal, if the battle was to visually promote the plight of the Free Palestine movement, it feels like the international army of socially networked citizens has won. As Professor Karma Nabulsi recently said:

On this bloody international battlefield over truth…where with images, eyewitness reports and videos sent direct from the killing fields of Gaza, anyone in the world with a phone, a laptop or even just a neighbourhood cafe with a television can experience the hourly atrocities that a high-tech occupying army is capable of imposing…Israel has lost. 

But in the aftermath of this flurry of internet activity, one can’t but help wonder, what do these 21st century cyber victories actually mean?

The notion of bearing witness–usually by photographs–has long been regarded as integral to the representation of violence, conflict and humanitarian disaster. Arguably, documentary imagery of suffering bodies is instrumental not only in revealing truths, but in supporting reform movements shaping our perception of poverty and underpinning the work of NGOs. Such usage of imagery tends to be premised on the assumption that knowledge is power; that if people only knew what humans were capable of doing to each other, they would intervene. The exposure that images get on social networks must therefore offer enormous new opportunities to galvanise the international community’s support to right some wrongs.  

Conversely, however, there is persuasive evidence suggesting that the relationship between knowledge and action is not so simple. South African sociologist Stanley Cohen’s seminal studies of the psychological and political mechanisms used to avoid uncomfortable realities found that mediated awareness of the suffering of others engenders not much more than ‘denial’ or desensitisation–whether by blocking out, turning a blind eye, shutting off, not wanting to know, or seeing what we want to see. These sorts of responses make us file our knowledge away, and allow initial awareness (and even distress) concerning an issue to go no further.

Granted, this research was conducted before the advent of social media and camera phone technology. In fact, the emotional response to images people are exposed to online is a largely unstudied field–which is strange given the increasing prevalence of sharing witness.

In the wake of Israel’s military incursion into Gaza in November 2012 when another–albeit smaller– image war took place on social media, I started investigating how people reacted to imagery they were exposed to via social media, as opposed to TV or broadsheet coverage.  

Survey data, and analysis of social media comments to a number of images that went viral, and interviews with eminent members of the photojournalism community, led to preliminary findings that, although denial and desensitisation are continuing features of our reaction to distant suffering, people do engage with images of humanitarian issues and conflict differently from seeing images in a broadsheet or on TV.

For example, it was found that social network users will often pay more attention to images on social media than images they might otherwise see on traditional media (“I take notice if an image is sent through via friends and family,”; “I definitely pay more attention to what is on social media than what is on the news,”), triggering awareness of new and different perspectives and further action–even if something as simple as reconsideration, or reading up further on an issue (“they often raise my awareness or draw attention to issues I haven’t previously considered,” “I…hope to raise awareness of protecting human rights and promoting peace through sharing.”)

Furthermore, it appeared that images seen on social media felt more real to viewers (“the images brought it closer and the vary ordinariness of some of the images made it more real”; “they seem to have more honesty about them which means they become less like media wallpaper and somehow more real”), which makes them feel closer to and empathise with distant sufferers (“images help to understand better the scale and seriousness of the issues, make me feel related to the people experiencing it.”) A not insignificant 35% of survey respondents went so far to report that the visualisation of conflict on social media made them feel like they were personally experiencing the conflict. The act of sharing witness was thus found to be a potential source of power not to be underestimated by international organisations and human rights groups alike.

Skip to 2014, however, and despite an unprecedented visualisation of the Gaza conflict online, the social media landscape has changed again. For this year marked the introduction of complex algorithm changes by Facebook and an increasing trend of organisations removing posts unhelpful to their cause–both of which alter social media’s organic reach. As Wired Magazine recently reported, “in 2014 the News Feed is a highly-curated presentation, delivered to you by a complicated formula based on the actions you take on the site, and across the web”, which has the unfortunate implication that “we set up our political and social filter bubbles and they reinforce themselves—the things we read and watch have become hyper-niche and cater to our specific interests.”

At this juncture only time, and further research, will therefore tell if and how the visualisation and personalisation of conflict might at last force the international community to have some sort of a cosmopolitan moment in times of crisis. But at the end of the day, #FreePalestine’s recent social media victory has not led to an ICC investigation into the war crimes it allegedly uncovered. Right now, it feels like it hasn’t led to very much at all. 

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