Terrorism and social media

I listened to a fascinating interview on CBC Radio’s The Current this morning (February 25) with former Google executive Wael Ghonim on the role that social media played in the Egyptian uprising of 2011.  Mr. Ghonim was the creator of the FaceBook page We are all Khaled Said, named after a young man brutally beaten to death by Egyptian security forces clamping down on the newfound freedom and euphoria in the northern city of Alexandria.  The host of The Current, Anna Maria Tremonti, wanted Mr. Ghonim to reflect on what impact the use of social media had on the what was to become short-lived renaissance in Egyptian society.  Here are some excerpts from that interview which I found very telling (all are quotes from Mr. Ghonim – you can read a complete transcript here):

  • I came to realize the hard way that basically social media is a tool, it’s an amplifier. It could amplify good and amplify bad.
  • I think liberating a society is a far more complex process than just providing people with access to Internet (NB Mr. Ghonim had stated earlier that the only thing necessary to liberate a society was the Internet)
  • I want to basically stress the fact that we’re not here accusing social media of what human behavior is. Actually, human behavior is human behavior.
  • So, now we write our opinions in 140 characters about complex world affairs, and then these opinions stay forever and make it difficult for us to change our positions.

There is a lot of good food for thought here but I want to draw the conversation back to terrorism (after all, this IS a blog on terrorism). There have been some interesting developments of late on the use of social media by extremists.  Twitter and other companies have been cracking down on those who use their platforms to advance violence.  Twitter alone announced that it has suspended 125,000 (125,000!!) accounts linked to Islamic State.  In turn IS has threatened both Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and FaceBook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: I suppose this is to coerce them to stop taking down IS material, though I highly doubt either man is shaking in his boots.

Mr. Ghonim makes the claim that social media is a tool, an amplifier.  On that he is spot on.  I cannot count the number of analysts who have stated that the Internet and social media have altered terrorism forever.  No they have not.  Yes, it is true that these technologies have allowed extremist groups to distribute their messages and attract supporters more easily.  But we have to bear in mind that terrorism predates the Internet and will adapt to whatever vehicle or medium comes next.  Remember the samizdat press?  It was used by Soviet dissidents to spread propaganda.  As were cassettes by those seeking to overthrow the Shah of Iran.  Or faxes used by Usama bin Laden to criticise the Saudi regime well before he became the world’s #1 terrorist.  Today’s Internet will morph into tomorrow’s marvels (brain implants?) and terrorists will be there to take advantage of them.

Secondly, social media is a reflection of human behaviour, not vice versa.  We think and act based on several million years of primate evolution (you can even go back to when our ancestors journeyed out of the oceans if you want) and technology is not going to alter fundamental ways of being.  Terrorist behaviour is human behaviour, although most of us would agree that it is one of the more unsavoury aspects of our species.  To cite Ecclesiastes “there is nothing new under the sun”.  I would argue that this certainly applies to core human actions.

The other point Mr. Ghonim makes about the ubiquitous use of Twitter and FaceBook to discuss complex issues is also profound but I will refrain from ranting about the lack of in-depth dialogue for fear of being labelled an old crank.  But there is relevance for terrorism.  How often do pundits throw out simplistic models of radicalisation like “it’s all about alienation” or “all terrorists are mentally ill”?  Arguments that fit nicely in a Tweet by the way.

What struck me about the interview was the sadness surrounding a long-repressed people seeking basic decency and rights.  The things we all hope for were brutally crushed by Egypt’s military and recent events in that country do not lend any optimism for the immediate future.  Social media played an important part in that tragically limited revolt but it could not and cannot ensure change on its own.  Similarly let us not ascribe an exaggerated influence to Twitter for the world’s terrorist groups.  Most things are more complicated than a FaceBook post, including terrorism.  Tweet that please.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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