As the so-called “digital divide” is made smaller and the world becomes “flatter,” it becomes increasingly important that new media technologies be used as instruments of good rather than evil.
Over the years, the broadly-defined social media has emerged from its fringe existence as a simple communication tool and grown into a formidable, indispensible force that helped change societies. From its origin as a relatively obscure environment for technological “nerds” to communicate with each other, Social Media became a magnificent social networking phenomenon overnight when FaceBook and Twitter played a vital role in the Arab Spring uprisings. It was the main tool used by the citizenry to challenge and even uproot governments in several countries and forced significant changes in many more. Social media has become an alarming term and sown fear in the ears and minds of dictators across the globe while sowing hope for significant change in the hearts and minds of the people they oppressed.
It all started in Tunisia on December 17, 2010 when Bouazizi, a street vendor, set himself afire to protest the harassment and humiliation inflicted upon him by government officials. The protest grew largely through the use of social media by the organizer to spread the message and mobilize the community. It led to the resignation, a mere four weeks later, of the president of Tunisia, who had been in power for 23 years. This stunning use of social media caught on quickly and used by protesters in other countries in the Arab world, albeit with different outcomes. To date, 17 countries in the Arab world had uprising and other forms of resistance started with and supported by social media. Social media have become a sine qua non in the modus operendi of the “oppressed” to organize, amass, and galvanize their comrades into a commendable force with a critical mass, both physically and intellectually, to make their voice heard and push their agenda. More often, it was used as a way to call for action or to broadcast location for the mass to gather for demonstrations or campaign rallies.
After the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013, social media once again grabbed global attention as their users took on the part of sleuth trying to help the government apprehend the suspects. The outcome this time was less than desirable. Despite of noble intention, the campaign led to the false accusation of a few innocent persons who had their social media pictures flashed on national TV’s and the front-page of respected national newspapers to go into hiding to avoid potential physical harm. A social media’s general manager actually apologized to its millions users and the victims for its role in fueling the rumors.
Unfortunately, intentional misuse of social media for malicious benefit, be it for public or private use, is frequent. Special interest groups and ill-intentioned individuals also resort to the use of social media to spread erroneous rumors for their gain. Their targets include political opponents, competing individuals, or companies. A quick attack that almost instantaneously spreads misinformation to millions of users exacts lasting damage and is difficult to defend. With data collected from millions of individuals, social media’s user database increasingly becomes target of hacking attempts to steal the user’s personal information.
As internet access gradually gains the status of a commodity, more financial institutions and retailers make their presence on-line and open up their business database to access by Internet users. Despite their best effort in securing their systems, hackers have succeeded in breaking through their digital defense and have stolen financial information, most commonly credit cards and identifying information, of their customers. Even government’s highly secured computers have been penetrated by the hackers.
Individual websites and blogs, moreover, are common prey of phishing attempts to steal login and passwords of visitors. Free email account users are also frequent target of hackers who steal their passwords and use their accounts to send spam emails to people in their contact lists.
Even though, hacking offenses and other misuse of the internet by nature do not directly inflict bodily harm on anyone, they do, however, create a constant fear for on-line users and computer professionals who are responsible for the security of their systems, and may destroy people’s reputations or financial lives. Far more dishearten news were the reports of teen suicides caused by the spiteful spreading of their unflattering pictures and bullying comments targeting them on social media. Thus, hacking and misuse of the internet disrupt peace and order in society and may indirectly leads to physical harm or death.
Terrorist organizations also have access to social media, they use it as a conduit for their propaganda and as a harvesting field. They use the media and their websites to spread their doctrines of hate, to reach out to impressionable and susceptible people to recruit them, and/or to incite them into being lone-wolf sympathizers spreading terror and destructive ideologies on their behalf. Even worse, they use the very social media and internet that were built to bring people together to spread the know-how on building low-tech, mass-destruction weapons that can be assembled in everyone’s kitchen, and whose primary purpose was spreading terror by killing and maiming innocent lives.
Social media certainly offer the world a double-sided sword. Its rapid transmission of voice, text, and audio/video to millions of people worldwide 24 hours a day provides a huge advantage to its users and would bring great benefit to our world — that is, if we used these media platforms wisely. Currently, the same advantage, however, is also exploited by terrorist organizations and other illicit groups to accomplish their destructive goals. The terrorist’s “personal” reach via the social media and the internet to susceptible, and often unsuspecting, targets is effective and should be deemed dangerous to society.
In a civilized and humane world, we protect and care for one another, we pursue common goals of peace, order, and democracy without infringing on the right of others or harming innocent lives. We need to find a way for our “beloved” and indispensable social media to be more accurate, reliable, and safe for everyone and to help us secure peace, safety, and prosperity for our society and the world-at-large.
Our reliance on the social media is a far cry from being Paul Revere, who rode his horse into the night to spread the news of the 1775 British attack on Boston and forewarn the “minutemen” Colonial army. It is simple to use in concept, but is a powerful communication tool with an extremely diverse, flexible, and sophisticate capability, if used wrongly, be it intentional or not, can cause far-reaching consequences, such as the way it was used by the public to find the Boston Marathon bombers, by the bullies to spread their attacks, and by terrorists to perpetrate their destructive acts. It is very important for us to harness the power and capability of social media and use them effectively to achieve our common goals. While FaceBook was purportedly created by one person, using it properly to protect our world and make it a better place is a problem with a solution beyond the capability of any one individual or group.
Call to Action:
We at the Boston Global Forum are calling for contributions from our “minutemen” army of thinkers, innovators, and leaders from academia, think tanks, industry, government, and armed forces across the globe to help identify real, practical solutions that we can use or develop to protect our life and property from sinister forces and, importantly, “to create a better, safer, and more peaceful world.” The most meaningful and innovative solutions will be honored and discussed at the BGF’s Annual Summit Conference October 2014 . at the Boston Public Library — the historic site where the bombs were set off in front of it on April 15, 2013, and shook the world.
April 30, 2013
Boston Global Forum
Long Nguyen, PhD, MPH is a contributor of Boston Global Forum and based in Boston, Massachusetts.
(WIth contributions from Alex Pattakos and Nguyen Anh Tuan.)