Global Awareness and Extremism

Does the global awareness, made possible by electronic media, foster extremism?

After the Marathon bombing, I got into a discussion about extremists with some friends. It was prompted by the killings of so many innocent people in Boston. And Newtown. And Aurora. And Virginia Tech. And 9/11. And Oklahoma City. And. And.

Like many people, in the days after such incidents, I asked myself, “What could possibly lead someone to do that?” I began to wonder if this was another case of “All the world’s a stage.” Certainly, the killings took place on a world stage. The timing, location and media coverage ensured that.

I wonder to what degree the publicity provided an incentive to the terrorists. Were they out to make a name for themselves within the Jihadist community? That’s certainly a possible motive for the crime.

The alleged perpetrators also reportedly used the Internet to learn how to make bombs. So in this case, the Internet may have also provided the method.

Another story involving the Internet also made headlines this week. Yesterday, a hacker  broke into the Associated Press twitter account. The hacker posted a false story claiming the White House had been bombed and that the President was injured. The hoax triggered a wave of computer-related stock selling on Wall Street. The Dow dropped more than 170 points in minutes. The stock market loss exceeded $200 billion. Even though the market itself rebounded when the hoax was discovered, it is not clear how individual investors fared. Depending on the timing of individual sell and buy executions, investors could have made large profits or been wiped out.

Yet another story about the Internet and terrorism broke today. A teenager from the Chicago suburb of Aurora was arraigned on terrorism charges. The FBI accused the American-born man of seeking to join an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization through a website which the FBI itself set up as a sting operation. The site urged readers to “join your lion brothers… fighting under the true banner of Islam”. Ethical questions aside, the incident illustrates how the Web can be used effectively to recruit would-be terrorists to extremist causes.

My Take

I believe that electronic media – especially the Internet – can foster extremism for several reasons:

  • Electronic media provide instantaneous global publicity, a powerful lure for people who consider themselves to be outcasts, downtrodden or powerless.
  • The global publicity of acts of terrorism multiples the fear inspired by the original acts, another powerful lure for would-be terrorists.
  • The Internet provides a high degree of anonymity. This removes much of the fear of getting caught.
  • The ease of Internet publishing provides a vehicle for extremist groups to recruit.
  • Non-existent editorial standards on the Internet allow the publication of manuals on how to make bombs, poisons, etc. that any child can find.
  • The Internet provides a way for people with extreme interests to find each other and form groups. Feeling that “I’m not alone” can remove social constraints that might otherwise inhibit people from taking violent action.
  • The Internet itself is a vehicle for committing many crimes. Without twitter, the stock market calamity would not have happened.

Electronic media amplify the voices of extremists on the fringes of society and give them an unequal “share of voice.” “Ordinary people doing ordinary things” does not constitute “news”; planting bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon does. It guarantees worldwide publicity for weeks. That’s a ticket to immortality for the lost and lonely, the alienated antis, and those who feel bitter or betrayed.

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