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Palestinians inspect the site of Israeli strikes on a house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip Image Credit: Reuters

The Israel-Gaza conflict is unfolding after social media developers spent the summer trying to replace X (previously Twitter).

It might seem like the near-comical rush to be the next big virtual gathering space has nothing to do with a violent crisis that has significant geopolitical consequences. But in an era where 5 billion people worldwide turn to apps such as X, Facebook, Instagram and now Threads to stay informed during breaking news, the virtual world is intrinsically linked to the real one.

And yet none of the tech giants at the forefront of this moment can provide an essential service needed by all in the digital age: access to accurate news.

They are either busy helping to spread misinformation, as Elon Musk appeared to do when he encouraged (in a now-deleted post) his more than 150 million followers to get news about the conflict from two verified accounts known to spread false information. Or they don’t think it’s their responsibility to create a platform where vetted news can reach followers, as in the case of Meta Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram’s head, Adam Mosseri.

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Walking away from the mess

In a Thread last week, Mosseri said: “We’re not anti-news. News is clearly already on Threads. People can share news; people can follow accounts that share news. We’re not going to get in the way of any either. But, we’re also not going to amplify news on the platform. To do so would be too risky given the maturity of the platform, the downsides of over-promising, and the stakes.”

While it is true that you can find news on Threads, it does not seem accurate to say, “we’re not going to get in the way of it either,” when the platform has reportedly blocked search results related to news subjects like Covid-19 and vaccines.

Mosseri seemed to be doubling down on a viewpoint Zuckerberg shared in September when he explained that hard news and conversations around it no longer align with Meta’s business model.

If that’s the stance social media leaders want to take in 2023, when the prevalence of internet culture demands that these platforms be not only technological outlets but publishers, too, then so be it. But it is a bit frustrating to watch the companies that almost blew up the traditional news circulation model walk away from a mess of their creation.

Over the years, various media companies have tried (and failed many times) to keep up with the new reality that algorithm-driven platforms have more control over the distribution of their content than they do.

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Palestinians inspect the destruction from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City’s Al Rimal neighbourhood. The UN said about 1.4 million of Gaza’s population — more than half — were now internally displaced, with many seeking refuge in UN emergency shelters. Image Credit: AFP

If Meta and X bosses don’t want to act responsibly as stewards of that reality, then the latest social media developers should not use them as a blueprint. They should follow new paths — the same ones legacy media once walked. This includes making the tenets of journalism, such as seeking truth and putting it into context, maintaining independence and holding the powerful accountable, a part of their business model.

Power of a hashtag

Pre-Musk, Twitter did just that. It developed into a space for journalists to find sources, inform the public and drive real-time discussions through the power of a hashtag. Now, reporters (and whole news organisations) have understandably chosen to leave or only use the platform passively and occasionally.

The traditional press is certainly not perfect. For one, it has a long way to go regarding equity in its hiring and news coverage. And even the most celebrated legacy media outlets routinely warrant criticism of their implicit and explicit biases. There are some that are guilty of spreading misinformation and disinformation.

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In an era where 5 billion people worldwide turn to social media apps to stay informed during breaking news, the virtual world is intrinsically linked to the real one. Image Credit: Reuters

But when it does what it is intended to do, traditional media can be a powerful verification tool, allowing us to witness important events in real time and help create a shared experience.

We don’t turn on our televisions or open news apps on our phones and find ourselves routinely inundated with misleading information. The same can’t be said for social media. In the hours and days following attack on Israel, posts and videos with false information — including one from a video game — were viewed millions of times on X. And there are times when accurate information is wrongly flagged as false or misleading.

In its current state, social media has only led to more ignorance, confusion, and, frighteningly, more dehumanisation of the people trying to live through this latest conflict.

No matter who says otherwise, it should not be considered hopeless or unreasonable to expect someone to build a digital public square that will take this power seriously and transform it into something that could be used for good instead. — Bloomberg

Michael Arceneaux writes about pop culture, politics, race, religion, class and gender