09/24/2012 04:00 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

It's All the Rage: 'The Innocence of Muslims,' Social Media, and Free Speech

Clumsy, amateurish, and officially disavowed by the United States, Innocence of Muslims, the controversial American-made trailer for a supposed feature-length film continues to ignite protests across the Muslim world, taking lives of Muslims and non-Muslims -- including that of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. Some observers argue the violent response to the film was orchestrated on 9/11 as a protest against the United States and the West, while others maintain public response has such complex motives the violence could not have been planned. Whatever the origins of the riots, they underscore the role of social media as a purveyor of provocation. Indifferently offering equal shares of grotesque bigotry, reasoned debate, enlightened humor and a mind-boggling variety of other responses, social media raise complex questions about freedom of speech in an increasingly global world.

As long as social media have existed, their various forms have been censored around the globe, even in countries with strong traditions of free speech, where issues of privacy, protection of minors, intellectual property and hate-speech are concerned. Anxiety over the power of social media rises in proportion to the intensity of events of all sorts -- elections, protests, and riots. Where social media helped foster the Arab Spring, threatened governmental institutions sought to censor it. Likewise, the rioting motivated Google, which owns Youtube, to block the controversial trailer in Egypt and Libya, though an American judge refused actress Cindy Lee Garcia's attempt to have it removed.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Egypt's nominally independent Islamist party and political organ for the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, is a savvy user of social media, and its actions well characterize the ambivalence of social media. Bridging official and civil spheres, the FJP deserves credit for encouraging "peaceful and orderly" demonstrations against the film. However, Egypt's Morsi also instrumentalized the crisis by blaming the United States and calling for a ban on the offensive trailer. Moreover, a mere week after the initial riots, when cartoons deriding the Muslim prophet surfaced in France, the FJP released a statement requesting these too be "banned" and drew comparisons to other contexts as oddly matched as Kate Middleton's breasts and the Holocaust:

The FJP urges the French government to take stern and speedy action against this magazine, which violated the sanctity of religions and religious symbols, especially since the French judiciary has taken clear steps against a magazine that published photos offensive to Catherine Middleton, British Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William's wife, and since it also holds a strict position against denying the Holocaust.

Aside from conflating two separate issues -- the Duchess' privacy and the protection of religious symbols -- the FJP has a point here, that governments should not only protect royalty, but everyday people. Whether controlling social media can achieve this goal is another question. Many responses on social media ask whether publics have a right to "freedom from insult" as well as freedom of speech.

But, what exactly is freedom from insult? Should Richard Dawkins be censored for complaining about "Muslim intransigence"? Isn't it equally insulting to imagine that Muslims are so easily offended as to have no other recourse but to riot over a pathetic trailer? Tellingly, most calls to proscribe social media reveal a lack of political and cultural understanding, especially on the part of official governments. Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf asserts during a government-led day of protest:

"If denying the Holocaust is a crime, then is it not fair and legitimate for Muslims to demand that denigrating and demeaning Islam's holiest personality is no less a crime?"

Laws about Holocaust denial are not global. What can't be said in Germany or France enjoys freedom of speech in the United States and elsewhere. Likewise, without global laws on freedom of speech every context must struggle to deal with the huge rhetorical mess instantly available on the Internet.

How, for example, should the public respond to one Twitter account user Younas ‏@pakfone who asserts on Friday September 21, 2012:

"Why protest #innocenceofmuslims when u can celebrate #holocaust?"

This "tweet" is tasteless, hateful too. But such interventions remain always a possibility on the Internet, which also allows open season on anyone who chooses to write hateful things.
Many supporters of the Internet defend its freedom and argue that Youtube should not ban the trailer. In the Daily Beast, Andrew Blum claims the Internet may well be the most unstable road to democracy, but that many have officially defended it:

"What's perhaps strangest of all is that we have staked the future of democracy and freedom in the quicksand of Facebook and YouTube. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in 2010, in a prominent speech on Internet freedom, "viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day."

No one can be certain what might happen on the Internet, why this particular pathetic trailer went viral and other representations of Islam -- for better or worse -- have not, remains unclear. What might possibly go viral, as that metaphor of infection implies, also remains difficult to predict, and, some commenters, like Andrew Blum, claim, "impossible to manufacture."

Whether social media support Mark Zuckerberg's optimistic claim that "governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few," remains a question. What social media users demand may or may not affect government decision-making, nor can it guarantee the freedom Zuckerberg imagines. Social media serve many different masters, and that's a good thing.

Sometimes, social media can be deployed for social good, with peaceful, witty responses like the Twitter storm of #MuslimRage jokes lampooning the controversial Newsweek cover, that depicted fury-besotted Muslims flailing at the camera. In a testimony to the good social media can do, social-media users from all backgrounds joined in the #MuslimRage jest. Yet, in deference to knowledge provided by people within culture themselves, the funniest postings where from Muslims themselves:

Hend ‏@LibyaLiberty, whose picture shows her wearing a headscarf: "I'm having such a good hair day. No one even knows. #MuslimRage"

تسنيم تسنيم ‏@tessneema: "When a brother walks into jumua and prays sunnah right in front of you but his pants are hanging too low. #LoweringGaze #Gross #MuslimRage"

That is the point of social media: both people within and outside a culture can comment, and the approaches differ greatly. Comments from without can be as sympathetic and insightful as the funny insider comments above. Social media both promise and trouble this freedom to comment on one's own and another's culture. Most ambiguously, they offer no guarantee that they will enable publics to enlighten themselves. For all the positive modeling of less inflammatory responses, social media succeed in fueling rage as well as redirecting it. Social media's greatest feature thus remain in their refusal to guarantee anything will be all the rage, or that any public will conform to efforts at orchestration.