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Can global social media diminish Western ignorance?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Western mainstream news media a bit selfish.

Shocking, I know.

When it comes to accurate and thorough accounts of world news, Western mainstream media doesn’t quite put its best foot forward. Video footage over visual news stories is generic, and often unsourced. The perspectives put forth by your Fox News, CNN, or even ABC, could very well be affected by which companies advertise with those groups. And chances are, if the story doesn’t involve the United States in some way…quite frankly, we’re just not that interested (sorry, Gambian elections).

But as technology started to evolve, something super interesting started to happen…suddenly, people in the United States had access to the events happening all over the globe, thanks to this thing called the Internet. And that access increased tenfold once social media was introduced on the scene. People around the world could post photos, videos, and messages about what was going on in their country for everyone to see – including those in the west.

When people began creating these posts for the purpose of documenting a major national event, we started labeling many of them as “citizen journalists.” There were some questions that came along with this title. Who were these people? Could we trust them? How did we know the content was genuine?

As global citizen journalists continued to publish content independently, much of it exposing atrocities happening within their home countries, the world began to take notice of phenomena that would otherwise carry on in silence, without much international attention.

Egypt is one huge example of this. In the midst of rampant government corruption and police brutality, the public took to Facebook to gather support against the government and make the world aware of the problems.

Remember the Arab Spring? Of course you do. It was everywhere in the mainstream news media – you had a whole community of activists in Egypt and other Middle Eastern/North African countries posting videos of the police violence, government torture, and even civilian suicides by fire. One could argue that this material – as horrific as it was – made for eye catching and newsworthy video, prompting the larger networks to include it in their coverage.

But we need to ask, how did these networks learn about this situation? They certainly did not have their own correspondents on the ground, and it is highly doubtful that the CNN Newsdesk had an entire division devoted to monitoring corruption within the Egyptian government. Of course, they knew that something big was going on in Egypt, but ultimately, it was the Facebook posts and YouTube videos that added more depth to the issue, contributing to its adoption in the mainstream news.

We’ve seen a similar phenomenon in Syria. As the conflict continues in Syria between rebels and the state, there has been a horrific amount of human rights violations within the region. Since 2011, journalists’ entry into Syria has been extremely difficult. Because of this, citizens in the region have stepped in to fill the gap. They’ve taken videos, written Tweets, and digitally documented protests and demonstrations against the state in Syria – an action for which they could be arrested. Still, this documentation has provided the online world with an inside look at the conditions in Syria. And again, the mainstream news media has seen these posts and reported on those events as a result.

All of this digital coverage of these areas of conflict – whether it be Egypt, Syria, or anywhere else in the world experiencing injustice – has provided both the online community and the Western mainstream news networks with more knowledge of what’s happening in those areas.

Now, this knowledge makes us question what comes next. What is the response of these groups in the United States and the “west” to these events? Is it our place to respond at all?

Remember the Bosnian civil war? Unlike that question on the Arab Spring, this one might take a second. Over twenty years ago, there was a civil war in Bosnia. Many ethnic and religious groups were being targeted by the new government following the break-up of Yugoslavia, and as a result, many Bosnians fled to the United States as refugees. They settled in communities in upstate New York and St. Louis, among other places. While the mainstream news media acknowledged the incoming refugee groups, they did not pay as much attention to the conflict in Bosnia. The public had no idea really what was going on in the home country of these groups, and therefore, they had relatively little extreme reaction to the group’s arrival.

Why was this? This was the 1990s – the Internet was in its toddler stage, and for the most part, people consumed their news from the major television networks and newspapers. There were no Bosnian activists with smart phones and internet access, posting protest video to YouTube. The conflict was not in the eyes of the West via social media/Internet, and it was therefore not understood and remained distant.

So here, we have a double edged sword with citizen journalists. Yes, the content they post gives us insights into that country and its issues. However, it’s what we do with that information that matters. People are well aware of the Syrian human rights atrocities, and the struggle between citizens and the state. Yet, the inundation of posts from both citizen journalists and terrorist groups has made many Americans hesitant to welcome refugees from the area.

Of course, there are other factors at play influencing why Bosnians were accepted into those communities more openly – many of these individuals were able to pass as “white,” and after a few years in the community, people in those areas saw them as “hard-working.” Still, when they first entered the United States, there was an ignorance from the people here as to all of the nuances and sides of the Bosnian conflict. In a digital age with independent bloggers and active “Tweeters,” it is increasingly more difficult for Americans to keep this ignorance toward world conflicts. Whether this is good or bad is determined by the quality and source of that content…you never know what you’re going to get.

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