Social Media and Bergdahl’s Trial in the Court of Public Opinion

Sgt.Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban fighters in exchange for five of its members detained at Guantanamo Bay has been on every TV network, radio, and newspaper for over a week. Bowe Robert Bergdahl was held captive in Afghanistan by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network from June 2009, until May 31, 2014. The footage from his exchange has been poured over by the military, politicos from the left and the right, conspiracy theorists, and the average citizen. For years the Obama administration has been asked to “bring Bergdahl home.” On 31 May, 2014, patriotic Americans across the land celebrated his release. If you missed this moment of American triumph it’s no wonder because by the next day the trade had quickly become a major political hullabaloo in the United States. Critics of Bergdahl began calling him a traitor, a deserter who cost at least six soldiers their lives due to his decision to go AWOL (absent without leave). He was someone who was not worth the potential future repercussions the release of “the Taliban Five” might incur on their country.

Bring Bergdahl homeIn a proverbial blink of an eye there was a paradigm shift: this soldier was now the man American should have left behind. Why the swift change of heart, America? Because in a period of mere hours, Bergdahl’s fellow comrades took their frustration to social media, calling into question Bergdahl’s POW status and the obligatory rule that no soldier is left behind when the very man in question may have done just that to his comrades when he left his post.  The Facebook page, Bring Bowe Bergdahl Home was created on July 19, 2009, its mission is exactly what the name suggests.No doubt its current number of likes (33k) has dwindled from the original count due to the change in public opinion and its supporters’ unwillingness to seem “wrong,” or in support of a “traitor” in the eyes of their social networks.

However, one of the new and numerous anti-Bergdahl pages, Bowe Bergdahl is a Traitor was created on May 31, 2014, and has over 75k Bergdahl is a traitorlikes, and innumerable calls for Bergdahl’s death. According to first-hand testimonies on this site from alleged anonymous soldiers in Bergdahl’s squad, a disenchanted Bergdahl dropped his weapons while on guard and left to find the Taliban with nothing more than a compass, a knife, a camera, a diary, and water. There are more first-hand accounts of Bergdahl’s behavior and disappearance all of which are unverified because the soldiers chose to remain anonymous and have the page’s administrator post the stories on their behalf.

Bergdahl is traitor imageThey say a picture is worth a thousand words. The wife of MSG Mark Allen posted this when she heard the news of Bergdahl’s rescue. This image has been shared many times over giving Bergdahl’s critics “proof” of the irreparable damage his actions caused.

Despite these first-person accounts, whatever made Bergdahl leave his post, whatever happened during the negotiations for his release, are known only by a few people – ones that are not speaking. This however, has not stopped a prodigious amount of people from politicians to the general public, from expressing their opinions on what they would have done if they were in charge of the decision to rescue Bergdahl. Bergdahl’s father is not safe from scrutiny either. The amount of people that would have done anything other than what the Obama administration did is now becoming comical (given that most of these individuals have no experience negotiating with the Taliban) and was lampooned by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show.

Many share the sentiment that political activity on social media sites showcases society’s“slackitvism” (a combination of the terms slacker and activism) – political acts that take minimal effort and have little effect. Case in point, how easy is it to “like” pro-Bergdahl, or anti-Bergdahl pages? In one fell swoop your friends, followers, networks, etc. know where you stand in the political arena. Such views however ignore the fact that one small act can lead to other larger acts and every participatory act carried out in the social media sphere leaves a digital imprint. This allows researchers to “harvest” your digital trails and generate so-called “big data” which garners an enormous amount of interest from political analysts amongst other interested parties. And if nothing else demonstrates that politicians are paying attention to your online political stance, the prompt massive Tweet delete of politicians’ pro-Bergdahl messages should not only prove their interest in your politics but makes evident that one of their main priorities is to make certain they agree with current public opinion no matter how quickly that opinion changes.

Social media allows for self-expression and enables the rapid dissemination of information because the Western world has the freedom to communicate openly. Social media has the potential to alter our world, which is a difficult thing to wrap our minds around considering the majority of our newsfeeds are taken up by pictures of what our friends ate for lunch and the latest results of the new Buzzfeed quiz. However, social media was the impetus behind movements that made an impact such as motivating young US voters to get to the polls, and the Arab Spring. It is a self-governing place, but it promotes formation of networks, crossing cultural divides and it demonstrates our common humanity. Critics of this stance should understand that it is worth noting that social media is still in its infancy. Just as fears that Gutenberg’s printing press would rapidly spread lascivious information which would directly harm women (and indeed, the majority of the very first things that were printed were pornographic in nature), social media movements have a long way to go. We have borne witness to the fact that social media is able to affect and change the tides of politics.

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