Social Media in the Era of Terrorism

Imagine a world where lack of a basic education is rampant, where poverty and corruption play a role in every country, and where force is sufficient to require obedience. Next imagine a world where individuals have access to vast amounts of knowledge through small tablets in their pockets, where corruption and poverty are constantly under attack, and where the abuse of power lives under regular fear of exposure. All of humanity currently lives in both of these worlds, transiting from more of one to less of another as we cross time zones, and the primary difference is no longer democracy or capitalism. It is access to the free flow of technology and the internet, and it is already remaking every society on the planet.

The creation of equalizing platforms like computers, smart phones, and tablet notebooks with access to the internet has superseded the need for the customary ingredients of open societies. The entire world is slowly becoming an open society, and even reclusive dictatorships scan Google Earth to see what was recently discovered. Global citizens are acquiring the ability to monitor events halfway across the globe at the flick of a thumb, and they now have the ability to discuss these events using social media.

Consider Jack Andraka, a 15-year-old high school student from Maryland who created a cheap and quick way to diagnose pancreatic cancer via research that began on the internet. During an interview of his revolutionary method, he said, “Through this journey, I’ve learned an important lesson — that anything is possible with the internet.” Combine that with the case of a small village in Wenchi-Ethiopia, where 20 Motorola Xoom tablets were dropped in a society without basic education. Shortly after delivery one child figured out how to turn on the tablets. Within five days each child was using 47 applications on average, and within 5 months another child had hacked the tablet’s software and turned on the camera. Then they shot a video.

While one must be careful not to draw too many conclusions from the two fascinating cases above, some safe assumptions are present. First, children in both advanced and developing countries seem potentially capable of utilizing basic technology without instruction. Secondly, neither group required the approval of authorities to educate themselves or their audiences. This presents possibilities and questions. For example, can we replicate this program to other uneducated children with similar results, and will their communities be as supportive as those in Ethiopia were? The questions are innumerable, but hope is always present when we see these results.

So how do we use social media to address terrorism? Well we begin by understanding that social media is just another form of technology. Across North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring, Twitter and Facebook were used to spread the fire for change that shook the underpinnings of those regions. Why stop there? Recently in Mali Islamists blended back into the populace after enduring swift losses following the intervention of the French Army. Why not create a program similar to instagram that allows users to anonymously take pictures of militants and posts them to a website using a cheap phone or tablet? Then members of security forces can ask locals to point out those who have always lived in an area and “recent arrivals”, thereby narrowing their search parameters.

Since the battle against modern terrorism must first be won in the hearts and minds of the people under siege, why not begin each operation against terrorist strongholds with a “soft strike” utilizing social technology? Social sites like Facebook could be created to allow communities under siege to list their grievances, and shore up the freedoms that militants seek to destroy. Portable wireless transmitters and solar chargers could be used to generate wireless signals until a more secure infrastructure is in place, and the cost would be far less than the price of weapons used by a superpower in a warzone.

While civil freedoms and government support do a tremendous amount to establish open societies, the growth of technology is creating avenues that do not rely on traditional means to ensure freedoms. We can conceivably educate people without expensive educational systems in place, and directly engage the minds of those responsible for a society’s future: its children. In Ethiopia, it was a small child who figured out how to turn on a tablet he’d never seen before. Who will it be in the dozens of countries that remain?

Andrew Prempeh

Andrew Prempeh is a second year graduate student at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy (Seton Hall University) with a dual focus in International Relations and Strategic Communication. He was raised in Ghana-West Africa, and has also lived in China. 

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