Terrorism, Facebook and media ethics: 'do no harm’?

Regular readers of this blog site will know that the Panoply Digital team are no strangers to adding a touch of the personal to our blog posts; we’re a small team who are friends as well as colleagues, and our work will always have a human element because we work in a field we are passionate about and with people we care about. This particular blog post has a deeply human element, more so than other ones I’ve done; I’ve written in the past about my love for Bangladesh and my deep connections there, and so last month’s terror attack in Dhaka cut very deeply. My partner and I knew some of the victims personally;  others were friends, family and colleagues of people we know. It’s also been a month of trying to reconcile the Bangladesh I know and love with this new side of Bangladesh that I don’t recognise - and indeed, the vast majority of Bangladeshis don’t recognise either; everyone I have spoken to is deeply and profoundly shocked, to their very core.

Without wanting to sound glib about such a terrible event, one of the things that I have been musing on in this past month is the role that social media, and particularly Facebook, played in the attack. I heard the rumours of an attack around 5pm UK time on the Friday evening - 10pm in Dhaka - as people started asking for information on Facebook. Throughout that night, I got most of my information from social media - the Bangladesh news agencies didn’t start picking it up until a couple of hours later. While some of the information was false, a large amount of it was true - and allowed someone like me in London to follow what was happening and be able to account for loved ones in Dhaka. It really brought it home to me that when people say that for them, Facebook IS the Internet*, it really is the place where people get all of their information: they’ll get their news from their Facebook feeds because they’re faster than news agencies - that’s why you actually have news agencies on these platforms now. The elements of speed of information cannot be underestimated.

But at the same time, that element of information at your fingertips that I found so valuable also inevitably had a dark side. Bangladesh news agencies started live streaming the hostage situation from outside the restaurant, giving the gunmen ample opportunity to see what the police and the government were doing, and to anticipate their moves. The head of Rapid Action Battalion, Bangladesh’s elite police force, had to request local news agencies to stop live streaming immediately - I know, because I was one of those watching him request it live, streaming it in Bangla on my Facebook news feed, in London.

After the siege was broken (12 hours later...let’s pause on that...12 long hours later), social media in Bangladesh went into overdrive. Rumours, information, false information, soul searching - but also sharing of graphic images. A common practice in Bangladesh is for police to release photos of dead bodies; in this case, they released the photos of the five gunmen, who had not been identified. Facebook users in Bangladesh were able to identify one of the terrorists from his Facebook profile. They also identified an innocent chef who worked at the restaurant, who had been killed in the crossfire and wrongly labelled as a terrorist, from a photo doing the rounds on Facebook - the police finally admitted their mistake after a huge public outcry, again on Facebook.

The gunmen themselves were using social media - following the news channels and Facebook news feeds to get information, but also using Whatsapp to send photos of hostages they had killed to someone else (no-one is quite clear on who that is yet); the photos were then released online by ISIS’s media agency. These horrific photos were then shared widely across Bangladeshi social media - they appeared in my news feed too. I didn’t want to see them, I didn’t ask to see them, but there they were, because someone else had decided to share them.

Along a similar vein, there were some interesting discussions happening about the Orlando shootings in June and the role of social media - the Orlando gunman checked Facebook for news of his attack while it was happening in real time, and there is a growing concern amongst security experts that social media is increasing the danger of future attacks. One family of a victim of the Paris attacks last November is suing Facebook and Twitter because they see these social media platforms as giving free voice to terrorists, and letting terrorism spread.

There is a very weird space around the media ethics of social media platforms, and around the culpability of platforms and people who host disturbing, inappropriate or just plain false information and  content, and the culpability of people who share this content, or react to the content. People are given a Facebook or Twitter account for free - with the idea of it being without financial cost to you as a user** - but  we still haven’t figured out how to properly use it from an ethical standpoint.

The concept of being able to say what you want whenever you want is so now, so current, and these platforms are so new that they are seen as an acceptable way of sharing information - but are they really? How do we define what is acceptable to share and what is not? Is freedom of speech more important than security? The Bangladeshi and Pakistani governments, to name but two, regularly block social media channels, YouTube in particular, to prevent people seeing certain content but there was an outcry against lack of free speech and freedom to information; quite rightly in Bangladesh’s case - YouTube had been blocked because of a video of the Prime Minister that was deemed unflattering, not because of security issues.

Debate around ethics of freedom of speech and social media use are not new, of course, but the Dhaka attack brought it all sharply into relief for me. I don’t have the answers, but I do have a lot of questions. And one of them is, as ICT4D specialists and as proponents and implementers of technology for good, are we having the right conversations about the projects we are working on? Is it time to look a bit more critically at what we are doing? Are we educating enough about the use of technology before we go out there and implement it? Are we considering ethics of the social media platforms we advocate?

Throwing this out there to the readers - what are your thoughts?

*Of course, there are other reasons why Facebook is the Internet to some users

**Facebook makes money off you from selling information about your consumer habits