Rioting in at least three countries in the Middle East and North Africa is the latest result of the global impact of social media as a game changer in the region.
The violence started after someone took a 13-minute promotional trailer for a movie that criticized the Prophet Muhammad, added Arabic subtitles and put the edited file on YouTube.
Within days, American consulates in Egypt, Libya and Yemen were under attack, although there is a growing chance the Libya attack was an orchestrated terrorist action. There were protests in six other nations in the region.
The video was probably posted in the U.S. and it didn’t break any laws here, since artists (even clumsy, offensive ones) enjoy free speech protection under the First Amendment.
The film itself is shrouded in mystery. Several media outlets spoke with a man claiming to be Sam Bacile, an Israeli-American filmmaker.
But the Christian Science Monitor says the Israeli government doesn’t have a record for an Israeli citizen with that name.
The Monitor also says a chief spokesman for film says he’s never met Bacile.
There are also growing concerns that the violence about the film wasn’t truly spontaneous and could be part of an overall anti-American strategy.
Whatever the facts, the use of YouTube as a way to generate a controversy across the borders is just the latest use of social media to fight a war of ideas in the region.
The revolution in Egypt was organized using Facebook as a tool to gather dissenters. Twitter was also a key tool in Egypt when its government tried to lock down communications.
Some experts have compared social media to the use of pamphlets in the American Revolution to communicate a broad message.
“In the same way that pamphlets didn’t cause the American Revolution, social media didn’t cause the Egyptian revolution,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, told Wired magazine in 2011. “Social media have become the pamphlets of the 21st century.”
Twitter was also a key component of the Libyan uprising.
The use of social media in both nations was also a tool to generate international interest in their conflicts.
And now, the use of YouTube as an indirect way to foment violence has the company, which is owned by Google, adapting its policies.
YouTube has now blocked the movie trailer from users in Egypt and Libya.
“This video – which is widely available on the Web – is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube,” Google said in a published statement. “However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt, we have temporarily restricted access in both countries.”
YouTube is forced to walk a fine line between censorship and ethical issues.
In this case, it appears that an Egyptian talk show host stumbled upon the clip and showed excerpts on his satellite TV show last weekend. The story also appeared on Arabic-language blogs.
Afghanistan has also reportedly ordered that all of YouTube be blocked indefinitely, to head off violence.
Since YouTube can’t monitor all of the video submission to its sites, there are no real guarantees that a repeat incident won’t occur.
China and Iran have also blocked YouTube.
Scott Bomboy is the Editor-in-Chief of the National Constitution Center.
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