Social Media’s Role in Times of Turmoil

When it comes to terrorism, social media seems to be a double edged sword. In the recent attacks on Paris and Brussels, social media has played a huge role in building momentum for the terrorist groups before the attacks and in helping victims recover from them.

There are many ways in which social media helps in the face of a terror attack by allowing people to reach out in a way they previously couldn’t. One great advancement was how victims or people in the area were able to use a Safety Check feature on Facebook in order to show their family and loved ones that they were safe. Another benefit of social media is that people can show their support for those across the world through social media campaigns, such as after the Paris and Brussels attacks when people could post using hashtags like #JeSuisBruxelles. Hashtags also played a role in helping refugees of these attacks find shelter such as #PorteOuverte (“open door”), #ikwilhelpen (“I want to help”) and #BrusselsWelcome. Social media also has the ability to circulate awareness and opportunities to donate to relief funds such as a GoFundMe campaign that was started for the victims in Brussels.

However, just as social media can inspire people to support terror victims it can also inspire people to join terrorist causes. Terrorist groups are able to create propaganda that calls people to action using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. Before the attack in Paris, ISIS released several videos encouraging young Parisians to join their terrorist group. Even before these recent attacks in Europe, ISIS began using social media to create fear and raise support, such as on August 19, 2014, when they uploaded a video onto YouTube of one of their members beheading an American journalist named James Foley. According to CNN, the video also shows him reading a message that “his ‘real killer’ is America” before the murder. Using these platforms, terrorists are able to raise fear and bring others into their cause.

This calls into question what tech companies can do to fix this situation and if they should. Many companies including Google, which owns YouTube, have algorithms that allow them to sift through content to prevent the posting of things like copyrighted material or child pornography that might be applicable to a search for terrorist propaganda. So why don’t they?

It turns out to be much more complicated than that. Some believe that it is worth this material being on the internet if it can be used to help government officials find information about the terrorists based on user profiles or information embedded in the content. However, according to an article on Forbes, it is not worth the risk of escalating recruitment because we must “consider that jihadis who post this content are fully aware that it is being monitored by Western security agencies” and thus would be careful not to reveal any useful information.

Others believe that allowing the government to search through social media would be an invasion of privacy. Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center of Democracy and Technology, said in a Morning Consult article that “If the government were to patrol social media websites and decide what is or isn’t suspicious, that could veer into censorship.” She seems to think a better solution would be “if private companies report content they find suspicious to the government; it’s less like censorship and more like a business simply overseeing its customer service.”

There’s no denying social media has a lot of influence. “Going viral” seems to be the only way to make history these days. Social media can create a sense of community by raising awareness about issues and inspiring people to help. On the other hand, this power to spread a message can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Social media is a powerful weapon and there is a lot of controversy about how to control it. And ultimately it is up to us to make sure it is used for good.

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