On 11 June 2010, Brazil, home to a population that’s among the largest users of Twitter in the world, started a campaign—Cala a boca Galvao—advertising it prominently during the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup that year. This movement highlighted the near extinction of a rare Brazilian bird, the Galvao, and within three days the phrase became the top trending topic associated with the World Cup. Lady Gaga’s backing helped, as a song sung by her, Alejandro, had lyrics about the threat to the bird. The Brazilian best-selling author Paulo Coelho added that the phrase was also a homoeopathic medicine called “Silentium Galvanus”. Wikipedia devoted two pages to the campaign. Within four days, millions across the world were sensitized to the plight of the Galvao. Tech pundits and environmentalists pitched in to laud the power of social media combined with an event like the World Cup to promote a noble cause.
Except—that it was all a lie. In what was later acknowledged as one of the greatest hoaxes of all time, the Brazilians were laughing at the world while mocking a boring football commentator, Galvao Bueno, whose irritating incantations had driven them to start the phrase “Cala a boca Galvao” or “Shut up Galvao”. The Lady Gaga song was fake though Paulo Coelho’s statement was a real—although also a prank. “Silentium Galvanus” was a tongue-in-cheek reassertion asking Galvao to shut up. For four days, everyone, including that unimpeachable source of information—Wikipedia—was taken for a Brazilian ride.
This was one of the lighter examples of social media. Apart from bruised egos, no one got hurt. Unfortunately, there are also examples of the darker side.
Terry Jones was a rabid anti-Islamic pastor from the small town of Gainesville, Florida. Until July 2010, his various attempts to express hatred were limited to anti-Islamic signage in front of his church that was promptly removed by local authorities. Beyond his limited following, Terry was a nobody and his rantings amounted to nothing consequential.
However, in July 2010, Terry announced that he was going to publicly burn the Quran—the holiest book of Muslims. Most of the mainstream media, acutely aware of the damage potential of such a story, agreed on a blackout. But this boycott fell apart when student Andrew Ford, who was freelancing for a press service, ran the story that no other journalist was willing to touch. AFP, the publisher, was syndicated on Google and Yahoo and, within hours, several blogs and media sites ran the story making it too big for traditional media, including the foreign press to ignore. As Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me—I’m Lying, points out, the mad race for 24x7 content and the need to “break” stories has made traditional media dependent on the social media space, which by its very nature is fast, incautious, inaccurate and, sometimes, has very poor judgement. Social media thrives on sensationalism, 140 characters are too few to capture context and accountability lasts for less than a few hours before the next “post” is trending.
Within days, people such as Hillary Clinton, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan David Petraeus and President Barack Obama were pulled into this sensationalist story. On 9 September 2010, the latter articulated the grave danger of such provocation all over the world, admitting that there was nothing US laws could do to stop the pastor. Terry Jones went ahead with the burning, receiving coverage in social media and the resultant outburst caused the deaths of at least 30 people in Afghanistan, including United Nations aid workers, the withdrawal of several NGOs, the targeting of Christians and a creating a recruiting poster for Islamic fundamentalists.
We often confuse the technical definition “social media”, i.e. media not controlled by individuals or companies, with the myth that the content of such media is social. That is not necessarily true.
There are increasing instances where rapes are accompanied with the threat of videos of the sexual assault being posted online for the world to see. In many cases, this intimidation is used to prevent the victim from informing authorities and being blackmailed them into subsequent submissions. While rape is not new, the use of social media to humiliate, subjugate and, at times, to drive the victim to suicide is.
The unaccountable nature of social media can also tell us what to like and dislike by simply presenting volumes of traffic that like a well-executed Ponzi scheme can feed off fragments of half-truths into a geometric progression until we start confusing what appears “more” with what appears true or what is really important.
Similarly, the use of social media to cast innuendo, incite provocations, start rumours, recruit radicals and even teach potential terrorists skills such as forging papers, making bombs and poisons and instructions on using them is gaining ground faster than the ability of the “good” guys trying to keep pace.
The fact that social media is the platform of the future is all the more reason that its users are made aware of the pitfalls, especially since children as young as 13 are legally permitted to enter a world full of strangers whose intentions can range from benign to predatory. And, in all fairness, the responsibility to make social media safer and more accountable must begin with denizens of that space who understand it best.
Raghu Raman is a commentator on internal security, member of the www.outstandingspeakersbureau.in and author of Everyman’s War (www.fb.com/everymanswarbook). The views expressed are personal.