As an art historian part of my research is into the derivation and power of images. No matter how many articles are written, a single image can say much more than written words.
This week saw the departure of two senior Facebook executives. Evidently, their reason for leaving is ‘creative differences’ with FB’s founder, Mark Zukerberg. I quote part of a leaving statement published on CNN’s website on 15/03:
“For over a decade, I’ve been sharing the same message that Mark and I have always believed: that social media’s history is not yet written, and its effects are not neutral. It is tied up in the richness and complexity of social life. As its builders, we must endeavor to understand its impact – all the good and all the bad – and take up the daily work of bending it towards the positive and towards the good. This is our greatest responsibility….”(see https://www.ccn.com/departing-facebook-execs-give-thumbs-down-to-zuckerbergs-latest-plans of 15/03 for the rest).
The 2018 Cambridge Analytic scandal demonstrated how social media can influence major events such as presidential elections. Cambridge were funded by former Trump strategist, Steve Bannon and the wealthy Republican donor, Robert Mercer. Cambridge were using details garnered through personal Facebook details to gain an edge in the 2016 US election for the Trump campaign. If you have forgotten the details of that particular scandal, here’s the link. Cambridge Analytic US 2016 election scandal
Surely the responsibility of all social media platforms, of which Facebook is the biggest having some 1.69 billion users, is to ensure what is posted does not harm society morally or ethically; neither should the details of the users ever be shared with anyone, let alone used to gain an advantage for any single candidate in national elections. In addition, there is Facebook’s dilatory behaviour in removing posts that were deemed by their senior people to be an expression of free speech, but many users considered offensive. Do you consider the mis-use of many personal details shared with Cambridge Analytic an example of ‘bending it [social media] towards the positive and towards the good.’ ? The above statement (imo) seems to be a platitude given to the Press to explain the departure of senior people who clashed with an attempt by Mr Zuckerberg to set right some past wrongs.
The U.S. definition of free speech is the right to express any opinions without censorship and without restraints, and something that FB has upheld in the past.
Amnesty International define it as follows : Freedom of speech is the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, by any means.
This definition was all very well before the days of social media, when the venting of ire would be to write a letter to the papers that, in all probability, would never be published. This was because an editor would take a view as to whether or not the letter was in the public interest. Therefore despite having freely expressed an opinion and put it in the post, there was an element of censorship about whether or not it would reach the public domain.
Do we have the right to say, post and read anything we like on social media as per the Amnesty definition of free speech? Surely our own sense of what is right and wrong should be sufficient to make us consider whether or not we should click on that ‘Publish’ button or the arrow for ‘Play’ on a video clip. Unfortunately that is not always the case. There are those who take advantage of the lack of editorial control to bully and/or post content any sane person would deem offensive and inappropriate. Remember those horrendous videos of beheadings shared by fundamentalists – do these come within the definition of an expression of free speech? In New Zelanad in 2019 we had the horror of live streaming being used by a white supremacist to broadcast the massacre he chose to perpetrate on those at prayer.
If you are old enough think back to before there was any internet when we relied on the television and newspapers to inform us of what was happening in the world. Photojournalists were as important as the written word. In 1972, during the Vietnam war, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut took a photograph that is known as The Girl from Trang Bang and it won Mr Ut the Pulitzer prize. But it may never have seen the light of day because an editor at Associated Press was concerned that she was naked and therefore the image was deemed inappropriate as it might offend; apparently this individual was totally unconcerned that the little girl was being burned by napalm. The late Horst Faas (1933-2012) was determined the world should see what happening in ‘Nam and, defying the executives, placed the image on the front cover of Time magazine. Ut’s photograph is considered to have shortened the war by some years.
The free speech argument by Zuckerberg and the FaceBook board has made me wonder how the Oklahoma City bomber and his accomplices would have taken advantage of social media had the internet been around in 1995. Those domestic terrorists killed 168 and injured a further 680 plus people in a bomb blast that destroyed one third of the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building. The effects of the blast were heard over fifty five miles away and seismometers located 16 miles from the blast registered at level 3 on the Richter scale. The destruction and damage to surrounding buildings amounted to an estimated $652,000,000, but no money can ever replace the lives stolen by these domestic terrorists.
In 2001 I was working for an international energy company and I remember watching the live news coverage of 9/11 with fascinated horror. Photographer Jim Nachtwey happened to be in offices near the Twin Towers at the time. This much respected war photographer, photojournalist, and five times winner of the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal, Nachtwey has the following statement at the top of his website.
“I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.”
I do not suppose, dear reader, you have ever considered how you ‘consume’ an image. If today, for any reason, any of us should watch the newsreel footage of the events of 9/11, we should ask ourselves why we are continuing to watch something that records the deaths of nearly three thousand souls and the injuring of more than a further six thousand people. By doing so, do we become complicit in the action of the terrorists? In my talks on the work of photojournalists in areas of conflict there is always at least one question about the events of that September day. Rather than get into a philosophical debate about the rights and wrongs of watching vintage newsreels, I refer the enquirer to Nachtwey’s website. Rather than being prurient voyeurism I consider his images pay respectful homage to those who died in the various conflicts he has covered in his long career as a war photographer. http://www.jamesnachtwey.com
The Christchurch atrocity in New Zealand was streamed live to the world and is yet another example of a maniac using modern technology to spread hate and horror. This individual has taken the diabolical concept of mass shootings to a completely new level.
Today we document almost every aspect of our lives and post photographs on the web probably never giving a second thought as to how others might respond. In my opinion, the latest pronouncement to make the various elements that make up the Facebook empire more private and to employ more people to monitor and remove offensive content, is too little far too late. There is a sad irony because I will be using social media to post this article to a wider audience.
I hope something positive will come from this latest tragedy and the executives of all social media companies will find the means of having a level of editorial discipline that will prevent insane individuals mis-using what should be of benefit to all. We all have to take responsibility for our use of these internet platforms so please think before you post. Remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and help make the world a more loving and peaceful place.
‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’