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Faisal Abbas

Faisal Abbas

Posted January 17, 2009 | 05:23 PM (EST)

Who Needs News Channels When We've Got Facebook ?


The title of this post was a thought that constantly crossed my mind as I found myself relying more and more on updates I would get from the popular social networking site when the atrocities began unfolding in Gaza as of the 27th of December.

I have been away from the newsroom and haven't had the opportunity to tune into news channels ever since my father passed away a few days before Christmas, as it is very difficult to follow up on other people's agonies when you are mourning yourself and have to spend some time to comfort your family.

Occasionally, however, I would log on to Facebook; initially, to respond to condolence notes from my friends living abroad until I noticed the social networking site's ability to mimic the function of a classical news agency; there were constant updates about Gaza on my screen every time I signed in.

With each visit to the site, I would get the most recent estimate of causalities as 'donating your status to the cause' became more and more popular.

As the case is usually with major events, groups and support pages sprung up quite rapidly... One could also argue that social networking is helping change preconceived ideas and stereotypes by providing an open platform of communication whereby Arabs are finding out they are not alone who oppose the Israeli aggression. In fact, support groups are full of Europeans, Africans, Asians and Americans who are quite active in their own ways.

On the other hand, sites like Facebook have helped in provoking thought on several fronts, particularly the long lasting prejudice against 'Western' media, claiming it is and always has been 'pro-Israeli'.

Of course, this issue has always been at the heart of many debates at academic institutions, professional seminars and dozens of books have been written about it arguing the case both ways.

However, the interesting point here is that social networking is bringing this debate to the public.

One only has to monitor 'posted items' on Facebook pages and comments they provoke to see what an amazing debate is going on.

A popular 'posted item' was the now infamous Alex Thompson interview with Israeli spokesman, Mark Regev, on Britain's Channel 4 regarding obstacles faced by the Red Cross in Gaza (Also available on YouTube.)

Another item that raised many eye-brows was the surprising criticism of US politicians at the hands of TV comedian Jon Stewart on 'The Daily Show'.

During the show's episode on January 5th, Stewart (who happens to be... Jewish!) aired a clip of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressing his strong support for the Israeli assault in Gaza.

"If you're in your apartment and some emotionally disturbed person is banging on your door, screaming, 'I'm going to come through this door and kill you!' do you want us to respond with one police officer, which is proportional, or with all the resources at our command?" Mayor Bloomberg said.

Stewart mocked the mayor along with US politicians who have voiced their support for the Israeli campaign, by saying: "I guess it depends if I forced that guy to live in my hallway... and make him go through checkpoints every time he has to take a sh*t!"

Now, readers in 'The West' (especially liberals among them) might be astonished to know that many of us Arabs are unaware of how fair and balanced the coverage of many newspapers and TV channels could be... but you can't really blame us, most of us have been isolated for a long time and were subjects to the mind-numbing state-controlled media until the age of satellite television and internet freed us.

But even in countries where the media is considered 'free', it seems to have its own problems.

One only has to examine arguments made in 'Bad News from Israel', a book by University of Glasgow's Professor Greg Philo that examined a similar issue in the United Kingdom.

Philo, who argues that the media should give historical context to its news, points out on several occasions to just how ignorant viewers could be regarding the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with some respondents actually thinking that the cause of this conflict is Palestinian parents who let their kids throw stones at Israeli soldiers, when they should be at home sleeping and preparing for school (Of course, it would help if they had a school or home to go to in reality!).

The beauty of 'new media' is that there is room for historical backgrounds and further explaining, what is even more interesting is that there is no censorship which means both sides of a particular issue could engage freely in arguing points of conflict.

Recent events have also proven that Israel has also discovered the merits of new media, according to Professor Adrian Monck - Head of Journalism and Publishing at London's City University.

Professor Monck elaborates saying that "Israel has certainly made wide use of new media platforms. But it hasn't necessarily used them effectively. Twitter isn't a great platform for a serious press conference".

However, he also argues that "On the other hand, a site like sderot.com certainly makes their point about the impact of rocket strikes on small communities. But inevitably, the content can't be removed from the context, and the old adage remains true: actions speak louder than words."

Of course what Monck means is that no matter how Israel tries to spin it, its army is still responsible for killing over 1000 Palestinians in around 20 days, something Oxford Professor Avi Shlaim (who previously served in the Israeli Army) described as a 'humanitarian catastrophe' in a daring article published in the British paper, The Guardian. (And yes, you guessed right! This was another 'instant hit' on Facebook!)