Social Media and the Assassination of an Ambassador

The murder of Christopher Stevens in Libya came amid protests—protests that were fueled by social media and a hate video that went viral.

Khaled Elfiqi, EPA / Landov

The murder of Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, who was hit by a rocket attack while escaping an overrun embassy in Benghazi, came amid a multiday wave of anti-American sentiment. The protests in Egypt and Libya were fueled in part by Arab users of two major American products—Facebook and YouTube—who were united in anger over an anti-Muslim film.

It’s not the first time social and online media have been key players in the shaping of world events—nor the first time their involvement has stoked debate about what is and isn’t appropriate use of these powerful online tools.

Here’s what we know:

YouTube, which is owned by Google, is currently playing host to a trailer for a movie called Innocence of Muslims. It’s unclear who’s behind the film (reports that it was made by an Israeli-American real-estate developer have come under question), which depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer and homosexual. The trailer doesn’t appear to violate YouTube’s user agreement (unless the company has a hidden enforcement clause for bad acting), so the website has no obligation to take it down. (After the assassination, other sites, including The Daily Beast, also linked to the trailer.)

YouTube said Wednesday it had decided to block the video in Egypt and Libya. In a statement, it said, “What’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video—which is widely available on the web—is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt we have temporarily restricted access in both countries.”

Facebook’s part in the ordeal appeared to be as a place where protesters could coordinate their activities. According to The Wall Street Journal, protesters in Cairo said they “rallied to the embassy at the prompting of Islamist Facebook groups.”

It's unclear which groups they were referring to or whether these groups are still active. Facebook’s community standards prohibit users who “credibly threaten to harm others or organize acts of real-world violence.”

In an email, a Facebook spokesman called the Benghazi attack “horrifying and tragic,” and said, “Facebook's policy prohibits content that threatens or organizes violence, or praises violent organizations.” He said the site can restrict access to content in some countries if it’s deemed illegal.

Throughout the 2011 uprisings that spread through the Arab world, social-media companies were showered with accolades for connecting a generation of young Arabs and providing them the tools to organize, share information, and eventually overthrow the dictatorships that so successfully ruled with an iron-gripped informational stranglehold over their parents’ generation.

During the Arab Spring, activists sent tweets to rally the protest crowds, citizen journalists documented alleged government atrocities on YouTube, and Facebook groups served as a hub for activists to communicate and plan their next moves.

In a recent report put out by the Dubai School of Government, social media were heavily credited with “mobilisation, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change” around the region’s Arab Spring. As the protests surged in the first quarter of 2011, the number of Facebook users in the Middle East rose 30 percent, according to the report. The majority of them were young and male—reflecting the demographic of the protesters—with Egypt making up a quarter of the overall users in the region. The most popular Twitter terms in the region throughout the first three months of 2011, the report states, were relating to the uprisings: “Egypt” (1.4 million mentions), “Jan25” (1.2 million mentions of the date the Cairo uprising began), “Libya” (990,000), “Bahrain” (640,000), and “protest” (620,000). During that same period, users sent 252,000 tweets per day, or roughly three tweets a second.

And through all of this, neither Facebook nor Twitter nor YouTube took significant action to stifle the protesters or remove their calls to take to the streets and topple their governments.

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Early Wednesday morning, photos of Ambassador Stevens—his lifeless body being carried through a crowd of young Arab men, many armed with BlackBerrys and smartphones—were posted to the Facebook page of an Arabic-language media outlet. They quickly spread throughout the Internet.