It is a well-known argument that the current dismal state of the Middle East is at least partly a product of the West’s economic and military interventions in the region over the last several decades. To be sure, this thesis remains controversial in mainstream American political discourse. But the recent rise of the Islamic State provides qualified support for it. That is, the Islamic State’s tactical use of Western social media products such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to raise its profile and successfully recruit large numbers of foreigners (20,000, including at least 3,400 Westerners) demonstrates that the West bears some responsibility in the matter. As the current Director of the CIA, John O. Brennan, remarked in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations:
The overall threat of terrorism is greatly amplified by today’s interconnected world, where an incident in one corner of the globe can instantly spark a reaction thousands of miles away; and where a lone extremist can go online and learn how to carry out an attack without ever leaving home … Indeed, for all its advantages, the Information Age brings with it an array of new challenges that have profound implications for CIA’s missions — implications that go beyond counterterrorism.
Beyond Brennan’s straightforward conclusion, however, lies a more interesting one: the Silicon Valley dream of social media as an inherently democratic and self-regulating mechanism is dead. If the Arab Spring can be justifiably considered the “Twitter Revolution,” then the Islamic State appears to equally represent a sort of “Twitter Terrorism.”
In my first article for the Stanford Political Journal, I argued against the widespread view that social media is inherently conducive to democracy in light of the shortcomings of recent political movements that relied heavily on networks forged by social media (the Arab Spring being only one of the more dramatic spectacles). As the technology critic Evgeny Morozov argued, there is no reason to consider social media any differently in its democratic potential from past technological tools used to connect people, such as radio and television. What brought an end to the utopian dreams for radio to be a “‘tremendous civilizer’ that would spread culture everywhere” was likely the rise of totalitarian regimes, like the Third Reich, that used radios for propagandistic purposes.
Up until now, the technological hubris in our politics has remained for the most part unchecked. Silicon Valley, its champions and its zealots, appears to still remain ideologically nested within Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook IPO letter, which stated:
People sharing more…creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others…By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored.
The reason why these remarks are unsettling rather than inspiring is not because they are wrong, but rather that they are fundamentally true. The Islamic State’s great success in recruiting military and ideological support from abroad is largely owed to the social media products it uses to make its voice heard on a scale much larger than what has historically been possible. As a result, it obviously cannot be ignored. The Islamic State is to social media what Stalin and Hitler were to radio.
Furthermore, just as the Bolsheviks and the Nazis dominated the political scene by virtue of their organizational talents and emphasis on practical politics, the Islamic State is a formidable enemy in the virtual realm because it also has effective political tactics and organization. It operates through a hierarchy of ideological leadership coupled with a bureaucratic cabinet to oversee media, finance, security, prisoners, and recruitment. In arguing that Islamic State is not merely a terrorist group, Audrey Kurth Cronin wrote in Foreign Affairs:
[S]imply killing ISIS’ leaders would not cripple the organization. They govern a functioning pseudo-state with a complex administrative structure … Although it is hardly the model government depicted in ISIS’ propaganda videos, this pseudo-state would carry on quite ably without Baghdadi or his closest lieutenants.
It is crucial that we now become collectively aware of the other side of the sword of politicized social media, for the reason that it is now pointed right at us by a formidable enemy. I picture here the common narrative of a novice bringing a weapon to a fight in the hopes that the weapon alone will be enough to defeat any enemy, but then being not only disarmed by the more skilled opponent, but then also being threatened by that same weapon by the end of the scene.
Believers in the pure democratic and liberating potential of social media and the Internet resemble this novice, who forgot that some weapons, no matter how theoretically powerful, are useless or dangerous if incorrectly or amateurishly wielded. Now, rather than continue to act as if the weapon is only on our side of the politics or try to wrestle it all back from the Islamic State, it would be wise to step back, reconsider our relationship to social media, swallow our pride, and accept that social media is not an exception to the rule in the long history of technology and politics.
Truman Chen, a sophomore studying philosophy, is the technology editor of Stanford Political Journal.