Terrorists don't need guns and bombs; they do need reporters and social media

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright May 2014


Consider the three stories that follow which are about terrorism in May of 2014. What they have in common is not the weaponry or the motive. What they have in common is the massive response by news and social media. How news and social media support terrorism is the topic of this essay.

o The kidnapping of 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria.

(Wikipedia version) This 8 May 14 WSJ article, In Nigeria, Parents Tormented by Stumbling Search for Girls Kidnapped by Boko Haram: Mothers and Fathers Mourn as Trail Goes Cold for Abducted Girls; No Answers in Sight to Brutal Militancy of Abubakar Shekau by Drew Hinshaw, is about the Nigerian mass kidnapping.

From the article, "But the kidnappers had too big a head start. Three weeks later, the trail has gone cold for the 223 girls still missing. More than 50 managed to escape in the first few hours, jumping out of the beds of pickup trucks or slipping away while they were supposed to be washing dishes.

The rest are presumed held by the jihadi group, whose leader Abubakar Shekau said he would sell the girls as slaves."

o The knife attacks at various railway stations in China.

This 10 May 14 Economist article, Changing tactics: A series of attacks at railway stations poses a new threat to security, talks about a series of knife attacks that have happened at railway stations in China. From the article, "So fearful are the authorities of the spread of fear itself that censors have even deleted microblog postings by government-controlled media about the recent knife attacks at railway stations. The latest was the third in as many months and took place on May 6th at a station in Guangzhou, capital of the southern province of Guangdong.

It appears that a man armed with a long knife injured six people before he was shot by a police officer and arrested. The motive for the attack has not been revealed, but the government sees a new pattern of terrorism emerging in China. If it is right, it has reason to worry."

This 26 May 14 WSJ article, Beijing's Xinjiang Problem Uighur terrorism is escalating despite China's crackdown., also describes this string of incidents.

o The Elliot Rodger attacks in Isla Vista, CA.

(Wikipedia version) This 25 May 14 WSJ article, California Shooting Sparks Massive Social Media Response From Women: Twitter Hashtag #YesAllWomen Generates More Than 500,000 Tweets by Sunday Afternoon by Jim Carlton and Erica E. Phillips, talks about the massive social media response to the attacks by this disgruntled college student. From the article, "The hashtag had garnered more than 500,000 tweets by Sunday afternoon, according to Internet analytics firm, making it the most active on Twitter."

Terrorism is advertising

As demonstrated most vividly by the third of these examples, the Elliot Rodger attacks, these acts are about advertising a cause. Elliot Rodger did a lot of planning, writing and video taping before he went on his rampage, and the media and social media have been eating up this well-planned theater with a spoon. Rodger is, by his own measure, a wild success. He got his cause advertised well.

Look at the publicity success of Boko Haram, the group behind the Nigerian girl kidnappings. Nigeria in these times is a place with a lot of change going on in how people live -- many people are moving from poverty into modest prosperity. Mixed in with that change is a lot of civil disorder and violence. This 28 Dec 11 BBC News article, Nigeria Boko Haram clashes: 'Thousands flee Damaturu', estimates that 90,000 people were displaced by violence that year. But violence is old news in Sub-Saharan Africa. What makes this story different is the heart-string tugging of kidnapping school girls. This twist is a prime example of the importance of emotion and novelty to getting media to support terrorizing advertising.

Conversely, the China knife attacks article talks about Chinese authorities recognizing the importance of advertising to terrorism. The article talks about the vigorous steps the Chinese government has taken to contain the spread of news about these attacks in the microblogging community.

Not too surprisingly, the Western press has not been supportive of this Chinese government effort. But the harsh reality is that if we people of the western societies want to see terrorism die down, we have to do something similar: We have to find a way to suck the advertising value out of these acts of horror and violence.

Smart phones, fast and cheap communication, and the democratization of information are transforming how we all live. As with any sweeping technology change there is some bad mixed in with a lot of good. The good has been a lot of reduction in the violence used by governments in crackdowns. Consider how embarrassed the Chinese government feels even today about the violent Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Consider how peacefully the Soviet Union broke up in 1989. Compare these to how violently the totalitarian regimes of fifty years earlier cracked down on their dissenters in the 1930's and 40's -- concentration camps and gulags.

Now, in the 2010's, we face the challenge of learning how to deal with terrorist advertising campaigns in a way that also keeps freedom of speech a vibrant activity... a truly vibrant activity -- thin-skinned intolerance of other people's words doesn't count as free speech.

(Note: I wrote about this previously in 2004.)


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