Big and Small Media: How an Obscure Video Touched off Riots

The internet is a powerful tool. Of course, the internet can be used as a tool to do good, or used to do harm. When used for good, the internet is undoubtedly one of the greatest tools in the world. However, the past few days have provided us with examples of negative consequences that media on the internet can spark when used aggressively. If you haven’t heard by now, there have been riots, protests, and assaults ongoing at US embassies in North Africa and other areas of the Arab world.

What Started the Riots

According to Reuters, the embassy attackers “were part of a mob blaming America for a film they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad.” It turns out there was an obscure video made about Islam which allegedly depicts the Prophet Mohammed in an insulting manner. Initial assumptions in the Arab-Muslim world that were that the video was a mainstream, popular film. This angered them immensely.

Of course, as with many misunderstandings, facts are slim and exaggerations many. The “amateurish production” (as Reuters calls it) was created by someone who wanted to instigate problems. Of course, a certain pastor—who has in the past threatened to burn a Koran—likely, along with others, promoted this video widely on the internet, adding fuel to the fire. A few people had seen it (Sunday evening the Youtube count was only 6k views) in Libya and other countries, and they then spread the info throughout their communities. By this point it was too late.

What Happened After and What’s Happening Now

Unfortunately, things in Libya got violent quickly. The U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, “was among four Americans who died Tuesday night after the consulate was attacked by gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades” according to the Associated Press. Since then, the anger and riots have spread to other countries. Note, Stevens is the first U.S. ambassador to be killed on duty since 1979.

Today, the New York Times is reporting that the riots “spread on Thursday to Yemen, where hundreds of protestors stormed the United States Embassy.” There are even reports that protests have erupted in Iran at the Swiss embassy. In addition to that, CNN is reporting that protests are increasing in their third day in Cairo, Egypt.

Why this Matters for Media and Content

Just last year we were in awe of the Arab Spring, a movement which utilized social media and the internet to topple some of the worst governments and dictators. We watched as people protested for freedom and embraced the openness and power of the internet to have their voices heard. They even continued to use social media and the internet to ensure heavy participation in organized, fair elections! This is a shining example of what content and communication can do on the web to make our lives better.

But these unfortunate events (that we as a nation are likely to be dealing with for some time) erupted not from a Hollywood Blockbuster, nor from a sinister message constructed by the talented mainstream media. They weren’t caused by an organized resistance movement either. These riots were caused by some dolt with a camera, a dark heart, and an even duller mind.

The internet is a big place. Mainstream media has standards they have to uphold; they need sources to create content. The average Joe simply needs WordPress and, in this case, a connection to YouTube. What’s important in this situation is to understand the power of only one person’s content. It has sparked riots that may change the world—at least in the short-term.

Gut reactions sparked the violence, and this is a powerful example of why we need to be careful about finding trusted and reliable sources on the web. We can’t take everything as true simply because it’s published or on YouTube. This is a lesson that has been lost (or taken advantage of) by the perpetrators of these riots.

Lessons for Business and the Individual

Even the smallest, most obscure content can spread like wildfire on the internet. Our voices matter on the web. We rely on the internet for many, many things and this reliance is only continuing to increase. We’re all on the same equal playing field online, as an individual or as a business. Sure the small guys might have to do a little extra work, but they can reap the benefits of being on the web just as successfully as the big boys.

Businesses and the individuals involved with them need to make the move to the web. The web should be used to grow successful businesses that help the world in whatever small ways they can. It should be used to encourage communication and build closer commercial and personal relationships among people. The internet is ideal for this. Let’s do what we can to keep it that way.

On a personal note, I want to express my condolences for the Americans that were killed in Libya. All of the losses are tragic, but I especially felt a connection with Christopher Stevens when I read he too once served in the Peace Corps as an English teacher.

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Patrick currently lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he is studying for a Master's Degree in Intercultural Relations. Upon graduation from Penn State in 2008, he spent two years overseas in Kyrgyzstan with the U.S. Peace Corps. While writing is currently his chosen way to put food on the table, he loves fitness and exercise, which he believes makes up for his avid computer gaming habit.

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