Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Western governments can curb online extremism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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This file photo taken on July 20, 2009 in Paris, France, shows the front page of Twitter, a leading Internet microblogging site. (AFP Photo/Loic Venance)

These days all someone needs to transform themselves into a bona fide terrorist is an iPhone and an Internet connection. If you’re in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, say, within two days you can be in Raqqa, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) stronghold in Syria, ready to enlist in their cadres and receive training—the whole process can be carried out with consummate ease, and this “bazaar” for extremists is open all day, every day. Do you wish to commit murder? Welcome, your wish is our command. Are you filled with a burning desire to abduct innocent civilians? Don’t worry; it is a simple and easy matter. Whatever your goal, you will in this day and age where technology is developing at such stunning speeds fulfill it with ease; remember our motto: “Ask and you shall receive.”

These extremist groups are able to broadcast and post whatever inciting media or propaganda they wish the world to see, and through this are able to attract thousands to their cause, who are able join the group in the light of day and not under the cover of darkness. These groups may have their own TV channel or even an official spokesman making statements in their name. They produce publications such as magazines and distribute them as well as promotional videos which they later broadcast. It would be well within their rights to boast of how they have exploited these technological developments better than anyone else, and it would be amiss for them not to offer their thanks to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for all their assistance in helping them fulfill their dreams of expansion with minimal spending and without incurring any losses. What need would there be for your own specialized TV channel if you have all these other outlets at your disposal?

The current international coalition targeting terror groups like ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front in Syria and elsewhere ignores an important issue here. For the fight against terrorism is not exhausted by airstrikes or even ground offensives; no, the more important battle here is the technological war against these extremists who have invaded social media channels across cyberspace. These groups are able to immediately declare their plans, goals, even methods of reaching them, all over the Internet, as well as incite murder and immolation and other heinous acts. With a simple browse or search through social media channels online, you will be met with a slew of accounts and names all claiming to speak on behalf of this or that extremist group or organization—whether it be ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, or others of their ilk. You will find them talking openly and with ease in a way they could never have done when they were stuck in a cave on a mountain somewhere thousands of miles away.

But you won’t be able know the full truth about this person talking to you and debating with you on cyberspace—are they in Mosul? Raqqa? What about London? You won’t be able to tell either whether they are an actual member of the group or organization they claim to be speaking for, or just one of the countless online pretenders deceived into drinking the extremists’ deadly Kool-Aid. (And it is here, among these impressionable souls—these potential recruits—where arguably the real danger lies.) You won’t be able to know even if this hypothetical terrorist lives in the city where you dwell—what if it is your son, your brother, a close relative? Would you be able to tell?

No one can deny that social media channels have led to greater freedoms for peoples across the globe, that they have become such powerful engines of social change as to help unseat and embarrass governments no longer able to keep an iron grip over their people—these channels simply do not form the appropriate arena or playground for Arab governments, even if these governments delude themselves into thinking otherwise. But as such channels have grown and become more popular, it has become clear that they have some rather embarrassing weaknesses—and also some very heavy responsibilities. After all, these channels do not have the capabilities to distinguish between who is an extremist and who is not. Moreover, Arab governments are not able to flout these websites’ user agreements—especially with respect to other members’ privacy or individual rights—otherwise they will face the usual criticisms that they are “backward” or “repressive.”

But as far as I am concerned there is no doubt that this promotion of extremists online is a catastrophe that came about as a result of Western action—or inaction. As such, the solutions here lie with Western governments; they are able to put down realistic and workable regulations that could effectively curb this state of chaos that has allowed these extremists to turn social media platforms like Twitter into their own playgrounds—more “extremist media” than “social media,” if you like. If YouTube, for example, required all registered users to provide a telephone number when posting a video, would extremist groups such as ISIS be able to broadcast their footage and recordings with such ease? If Twitter had enacted similar measures would we now be seeing all these thousands of accounts which support terrorism and terrorist groups? There are many regulations and curbs that can be placed on these social media websites to ensure they stay a platform for true, responsible freedom of speech. As for the vacuous concept of freedom of speech without limits, it has become a laughing stock after these extremists have exploited the space it offers in the worst possible way.

Just consider: right now at this very moment as you read this article, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi himself can create an account on Twitter using his real name and begin tweeting whatever he wishes. He could even, if he had linked his Twitter and Facebook accounts, be able to cross-post his tweet onto his Facebook page. Then he could top it all off with a video of one of his rousing speeches. Within seconds people all over the Internet will be spreading and sharing all that he says, and, eventually, these websites will at last move to close down his accounts. But when? After he is able to do what he set out do to in the first place and communicate with his followers in the quickest and most effective way?

These terrorists, who are able to invade our homes, towns, and cities without the need for passports or having to go through airport security checks, now have at their disposal a tool much more powerful and effective than anything they have possessed before—and what’s more, they are allowed to use it in full view of the entire world.