On terrorism, social media and Gen Y

After the Paris attacks, an international hacking group Anonymous released a video on YouTube declaring war against ISIS (also known as ISIL & Daesh as referenced by their opponents). Their campaign #OpParis is meant to dismantle ISIS’s propaganda and stop their reach on social media – two main components on how this de facto state claiming to be the rightful heir of Islam’s founding leaders, recruit more followers.

This begs the question: How are the social media companies dealing with their own products being used as tools to spread violence and carry out horrific acts?

Facebook claims to continuously shut down accounts that celebrate terrorism and Twitter has suspended thousands of high profile accounts used by ISIS supporters. However, it seems this is close to the most they can do and be responsible for when it comes to monitoring terrorist activity on their platforms – otherwise they face censorship issues from policing types of content, infringing on the right to free speech and democracy. In other words, it’s a fine line in a very grey area.

Facebook and Twitter are no doubt, the bigger social platforms with billions of users combined (Facebook alone has over 1.44 billion active monthly users as of April 2015, Twitter is at 320 million as of October 2015). But beyond these giant social platforms, there are hundreds of smaller apps and sites out there we haven’t even heard of that are being used and could be used for the same purpose. We are living in a technologically interesting time where kids as young as 3 or 5 years can code and new ways of communicating and connecting are being ideated, built, discovered and used every day. These are available to everyone, and most likely free. And if there’s anything we’ve learned, ISIS will infiltrate other new and emerging media and find ways to grow their force anonymouslythey’ve already got a 24/7 Help Desk, savvy social media operations, and more importantly: a strong narrative that appeals to the younger generations.

ISIS attracts those who feel strongly about ‘the end of the world’ and those who want to be part of the revival of a glorious caliphate. Moreover, ISIS preys on those who are going through some sort of identity crisis, those searching for meaning and purpose, and those who want a better life where they can feel like they belong somewhere or to something bigger than themselves.  Sound familiar? Well that’s because these are things that any young person goes through.

Mother Teresa once said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.”

And where do they find these young people? Online. Unlike the generations before us (pre-Internet days), young people turn to Google search for answers to their issues, “meet” “friends” under pseudonyms at chat sites or apps to discuss important life issues with. They genuinely feel a strong connection with someone so far, so virtual, because the person(s) at the other end is/are so attentive, so available… and as we all know, it gets lonely #IRL.

MIT professor, psychologist, author and cultural analyst Sherry Turkle sums it up brilliantly during her TED talk:

“I believe it’s because technology appeals to us most where we are most vulnerable. And we are vulnerable. We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control. But we’re not so comfortable. We are not so much in control.

“These days, those phones in our pockets are changing our minds and hearts because they offer us three gratifying fantasies. One, that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; two, that we will always be heard; and three, that we will never have to be alone. And that third idea, that we will never have to be alone, is central to changing our psyches. Because the moment that people are alone, even for a few seconds, they become anxious, they panic, they fidget, they reach for a device. Just think of people at a checkout line or at a red light. Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved. And so people try to solve it by connecting. But here, connection is more like a symptom than a cure. It expresses, but it doesn’t solve, an underlying problem. But more than a symptom, constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves. It’s shaping a new way of being.”

So it’s not so much the rise of technology and access to social media. It’s us. And it’s how we use these things we’ve indirectly helped create and transform.

Most of us might feel like we’re far from these terrorism issues that plague the world today because we only tweet and post stuff for friends and family, don’t live in the highly affected countries, not entirely sure what’s happening anyway and powerless to negotiate peace deals in Syria, influence Iraq’s government, or stop Iran and Saudi Arabia from engaging in a proxy war. But maybe instead of photoshopping rubber ducks on ISIS heads to humiliate them, maybe we can help make our communities a little less lonely.

That means openness and acceptance to other peoples’ differences without judgement or condescension; showing interest, conversing and listening instead of proving a point or spreading animosity and distaste when values and beliefs don’t match. Maybe, just maybe, that small shift in behavior and attitude can help save a life.

 

-ET

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