by Federico Guerrini, 14.11.2015
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack last January, the French government advocated new legislation to stop the use of social networks as hate-speech vehicles by ISIL supporters, who were also using those platforms to coordinate their terrorist acts.
Harlem Desir, State Secretary for European Affairs, proposed an international legal framework that would make Facebook and Twitter share responsibility when used to spread messages promoting violence.
But the attacks which ravaged the French capital yesterday showed how social media can also play a much more positive role.
Facebook activated its Safety Check tool, introduced in October 2014 to help people in areas afected by a disaster let their Facebook friends know they are safe. Twitter was also helpful: residents used the hashtag #porteouverte to offer shelter to people stranded in the city.
Another important hashtag, #rechercheParis, is being used to search for missing loved ones last seen near attack sites.
#ParisAttacks and #FranceUnderAttack are spreading information and updates about the attacks, while #PrayForParis gathers messages of solidarity and support for the victims and their fellow citizens.
But there’s also a darker side to social media: when a disaster strikes, it can easily become a source of disinformation. As BBC journalist Dave Lee notes, it’s difficult, in the midst of confusion, to distinguish false rumors from news. When a refugee camp in Calais was set on fire, for example, someone tweeted it was done in revenge, while it most likely was just due to an electrical fire.
White House candidate Donald Trump was also a “victim” of this witch-hunt: although he tweeted a a message of condolence, people shared instead, as if it were new, a tweet he made some months ago where he made a correlation between the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the fact the the possession of a gun in France wasn’t so widespread as in the U.S. Needless to says, he was accused of speculating on the murders.
Even worse, according to some reports, ISIL (or ISIS) supporters celebrated the attacks on Twitter, under an hashtag in Arabic which, translated to English, reads as “#ParisInFlames,” or “#ParisBurns.” While this appears to be true (Vice News gathered a couple of these infamous tweets), it’s difficult to estimate the extent of this “celebration.”
According to independent analyst Rita Katz, who in her Insite Blog tracks ISIL propaganda on social media, the latest attacks, “were part of a purposefully timed campaign to create hatred against France amongst jihadis.”
She also pointed to how #ParisInFlame was used – among others – by supporters of the Caliphate.
However the #ParisInFlame hashtag seems to have been used also by neutral, non-partisan Twitter users, simply to describe what was happening in Paris, and doubts have been cast on Katz’s methodology before, so caution is advised before making any claim that could be used to increase anger and sorrow even further.
If there’s one thing that the admittedly brief history of social media has taught us so far, it’s that these powerful tools are a double-edged sword: they can be used to show support and help coordinate rescue efforts, or they can also be tools for disinformation and hate speech.
After the new attacks, it is possible that the French government will call for greater and more effective surveillance powers and the recent project of harsher legislation for social media might gain new strength.
It would be a legitimate and understandable reaction: the risk, though, is to to get rid of the good sides of social networks, along with the bad.