This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
Ever since the first cameras were shipped to the frontline of the Vietnam War in the 1950s, the public’s perception of global conflict has been changing. Before that, camera crews stayed in noncombat areas to show the happier, more upbeat and more state-controlled side of war. Vietnam changed all that, with the My Lai Massacre of 1968 sparking riots in cities and university campuses across the nation, culminating in the eventual decision to withdraw US troops from the country as the government grappled with a war on both a military and communications front.
The battle to control the narrative spilled into the war in Iraq too and to this day the founder of Wikileaks – a company which exposed atrocities committed by allied forces – remains locked up in Belmarsh as he fights a US attempt to extradite him. But while the truth is undoubtedly an important facet of war reporting, social media has eroded another component that we should be just as terrified about living without, and that is nuance.
If the Brexit vote of 2016 taught us anything, it is that the voices in the middle of the debate are rarely given a platform nowadays. As far as social media is concerned, you are either in or you are out, leaving the undecided (of which there are many) nailing their colours to a mast that defined them in a way that they probably hadn’t previously defined themselves. This relatively modern phenomenon now seems to apply across the political spectrum to national debates such as asylum policy right down to regional debates on whether the most polluting cars should get penalised for driving in cities. The answer to both, in the context of a rapidly changing globalised world, is nuanced, but spend ten minutes on Elon Musk’s X, Donald Trump’s Truth Social or, worse, Telegram, and you’ll find a pretty depleted middle ground.
So it should come as no surprise that a defining moment for social media should come in the shape of a war, by which I mean the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas and the polarising effect modern communication has had on people’s attitude towards it. Between the protest marches, the sacked MPs and the raft of resignations, one thing that seems to have been lost is how unified most people are on the matter, with demand for peace within a two-state solution seemingly a prevailing position. And yet the fact that we might actually agree on something barely gets a look in on social media because we communicate on platforms that deal in divisiveness over unity, and will continue to do so for as long as algorithms shape debate in ways that bolster the bottom line.
Regrettably, we appear to have arrived at an era-defining moment for social media at the very worst time, which is terrifying, really, when there is so much sense to be found in the places in between.
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