Saturday, March 21, 2015

Seminar 2 Position Statement: Dr. Adi Kuntsman (Media-Culture)

Social Media, Digital Exposure and Military Violence

We are living in times when privacy and secrecy are, paradoxically, both increasingly guarded and increasingly unstable. Our daily routines include entering multiple password and constant adjustment of privacy settings; and yet the dominating practice of social networking today is that of perpetual sharing. Our virtual and material environments are filled with technologies of protection; our governments adopt new defenses in light of Wikileaks or the Snowden affair, knowing that more digital disclosures are likely to come. And yet, the everyday fabric of social media culture is that of constant exposures: embarrassing personal information, incriminating or incident photographs, or stories of abuse and cruelty, shared willingly and joyfully on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook of Twitter. But while big concerns over individual privacy and national secrecy are steadily taking over the agenda of researchers, journalists, intelligence leaders and software developers, what is often left in the shadows are questions of mundane digital sociality, its ordinary routines and grammars, and the ways this ordinariness shifts our horizons of violence, responsibility, and accountability. For example, when social media becomes an archive of willing self-recorded perpetration (such as soldiers documenting their own abuse of civilian populations), how do we address such archives’ exposure?

Some examples of these issues are discussed in my new co-authored book, Digital Militarism: Israeli Occupation in the Social Media Age (with Rebecca L. Stein, Stanford University Press, 2015): countless cases of Israeli soldiers, sharing snapshots or everyday military brutality in the West Bank and Gaza in their Instagram and Facebook streams. When first publicly exposed, such images had been scandalised, as was the case of a female Israeli soldier, whose smiling photographs in front of blindfolded Palestinian detainees caused a national media storm in Israel in 2010. It was one of the first time social media became a site where the ordinary violence of the Israeli military occupation turned viral. And while some of the public outrage and the official military response regarded the photographs incompatible with the army morale and the national character, many Israelis commented on how common such images were to those who had served in the Israeli army. Their anger and rage were not directed at the depicted abuse, however – rather, they protested the photographs’ viral exposure. “I have pictures that are far worse…Her mistake was that she put then on the Internet”, wrote someone in an  on-line discussion, his word echoed numerous times on various forums, talkbacks and other on-line debates. Indeed, the public debate at the time had largely ignored the content of the photographs – no national soul searching came as the result of that particular scandal (nor, for that matter, of any others that followed). Rather, it became a debate about privacy and secrecy in the age of social media. For indeed, the photographs had been taken by a journalist blogger from the woman’s personal Facebook album. Was it wrong of her to have publically shared such photographs? – some asked. Was it unethical, others wondered, to have screengrabbed and circulated the content of someone’s Facebook, unprotected by privacy settings?  

To whom are we accountable, then, when we praise – or condemn –digital exposures of such violence? Whose privacy are we talking about? That of the offending soldier, who titled her album “The Army – the best days of my life”? Or that of the blindfolded Palestinian men? For indeed, they have been abused not twice – once on the ground, and once in the social media circulation – but multiple times, in the regime of militarised colonial rule where humiliation and torture are both routinised and banalised, and now extend into the domain of social media virality. And whose secrecy is at stake here? That of an individual social media user, or that of the Israeli society as a whole? As we argue in the book, social media has now become a site where the “public secrecy” (Taussig, 1999) of the Israeli occupation is both threatened and reaffirmed, when the ordinary brutality of the military rule is simultaneously exposed and excused.

Today, few years after that first scandal, instances of self-recorded and willingly shared perpetrator violence in Israel no longer surprise – by the time we finished our book in 2014, wartime Instagram snapshots and soldier selfies on and off battlefield had filled Israeli social networks, becoming an integral part of the new digital everyday. As such, they render the notion of a digital “exposure” obsolete. How, then, should we refigure our debate on digital exposures, to move from the individualised notion of privacy into the complexity of both ethics and accountability, respect and justice? But also, how do we account for the increasing normalisation of digital exposures, and their incorporation into the very normative fabric of our digital political life?

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