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The Flip Side of the Arab Spring

October 20, 2015

Here are some English-language tweets from jihadis fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS: “I just noticed our martyred brother r.a. had a tumblr (I know, how could I have missed it). Make sure to check it out.” And: “This Syrian guy next 2 me (AbuUbayadah) is so stoked for our op he almost shot his foot off. Come on bro—safety 1st. :p” And: “Put the chicken wings down n come to jihad bro.”

Jason Pontin

In “Fighting ISIS Online,” MIT Technology Review’s senior writer, David Talbot, describes what a Google policy director has called the “viral moment on social media” that ISIS is enjoying. Talbot reviews the early and small-scale counter-efforts designed to “make one-on-one contact online with the people absorbing content from ISIS and other extremist groups and becoming radicalized.”

He writes of a “decentralized” social-media campaign by ISIS, supported by sympathizers in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere, who repost ISIS’s gruesome videos or produce videos in their own languages that inflame local tribal and national grievances in an effort to join their regions to the self-declared caliphate. The reason we care about ISIS’s social-media campaign is that it has been an animating force in recruiting about 25,000 people to fight in Syria and Iraq, at least 4,500 of them from Europe and North America. Social media helped create an army that established a new state.

ISIS’s viral moment recalls another recent historical moment in the Middle East when a movement was called into being by social media. In 2011, MIT Technology Review sent John ­Pollock to Egypt and Tunisia to report on the Arab Spring. At the time, journalists, new-media critics, and academics were engaged in an acrimonious debate about whether social media had been instrumental in the successful uprising against the dictatorships of North Africa. Pollock’s reporting in “Streetbook” (September/October 2011) showed that there would have been no Arab Spring without Facebook, because social media “connected people to each other and to the world” and those connections allowed people to organize and protest on the street, “where history happens.”

But Pollock’s main insight was that we shouldn’t be too surprised that a youth revolt used the preferred tools of the young: “The young make up the bulk of these movements, and inevitably they bring youth’s character to their fight for change … Organizing or attending protests gets fitted between flirting, studying, and holding down a job. Action for this generation is as likely to be mediated through screens … as face to face.”

So too, if less attractively, with ISIS. “In trying to understand why ISIS is so adept at [using social media to radicalize young Muslims], one comes back to a simple explanation,” writes Talbot. “The people doing it grew up using the tools.” Talbot quotes Humera Khan, executive director of Muflehun, a think tank that opposes extremism among Muslims: “When you say ‘terrorist use of social media,’ it sounds ominous, but when you look at it as ‘youth use of social media,’ it becomes easier to understand … Of course they are using social media! They are doing the same thing youth are doing everywhere.”

The inescapable conclusion is that only widespread rejection of ISIS on social media by other young Muslims is likely to effectively counter ISIS’s own social-media campaign.

But write to me at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com and tell me what you think.

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