A hashtag for genocide: Twitter, the Iran elections and the moral ambivalence of social media

We raised this subject in the wake of the Georgia revolution, but it’s worth bringing up again. In the light Twitter’s starring role in the current election protests in Iran, there’s much talk of the power of social media as a catalyst and enabler for social change, but as Jamais Cascio points out, the morality of a tool depends on the people wielding it… and it’s not hard to imagine it being put to much darker uses, much as other media have been before.

Not because I have any sympathy for Iran’s government, I should hasten to say, or because I see any threat coming from this particular use of Twitter. It scares me because of how close it aligns with something I noted in my talk at Mobile Monday in Amsterdam earlier this month, an observation that happened almost by accident.

In noting the potential power of social networking tools for organizing mass change, I thought out loud for a moment about what kinds of dangers might emerge. It struck me, as I spoke, that there is a terrible analogy that might be applicable: the use of radio as a way of coordinating bloody attacks on rival ethnic communities during the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s. I asked, out loud, whether Twitter could ever be used to trigger a genocide. The audience was understandably stunned by the question, and after a few seconds someone shouted, “No!” I could only hope that the anonymous reply was right, but I don’t think he was.

Certainly a point worth considering; no doubt there’ll be a backlash – against Twitter, or whatever the latest flavour-of-the-moment equivalent is at the time – once more people start asking the same questions as Cascio has. It should be a self-evident truth, but we need to remember that technology alone won’t make the world a better place; it’s up to us to use it in the right ways.

8 thoughts on “A hashtag for genocide: Twitter, the Iran elections and the moral ambivalence of social media”

  1. I agree that any communications tool can, and almost certainly will, be misused. Probably by the rulers of a country. The saving grace is that the other side will probably still be able to get their message out.

    Which brings me to my next issue. Wouldn’t it be great if some these tools used a technology which could reliably bypass attempts to to suppress them? I have no idea what such a technology would look like, except possibly frequency skipping?

    Just a little dream….

  2. The thing about Twitter in particular is that it’s almost never an
    isolated channel for its users; if someone Twitters, they most likely
    read blogs, have Internet connections and cell phone access as well,
    which argues both a greater likelihood of a broader information base and
    a lower likelihood of being involved in the type of factional group prone
    to genocidal violence. There are exceptions — the Internet dimension of
    global jihadist movements is well established — but the casual Twitterer
    doesn’t have much personality overlap with most would-be genocidists.

    And it should also be remembered — stupidly obvious as this may seem to
    remark upon — that Twitter is a *literary* channel; in other words, you
    have to *read* its posts. Radio lets you listen to a real human voice
    with all its emotional overtones and immediate empathic kick; Twitter
    requires you to think about and interpret what you’ve read, and to come
    to a conclusion about things.

    At most, I think Twitter would be a dangerously useful coordination tool
    for people who had already decided upon genocide, but I do not see it
    triggering a genocide in mobs who had not already planned for and chosen
    it; and unlike radio, Twitter’s messages are permanently recorded in
    carrier servers and far easier to track and backtrack, and anybody smart
    enough to know how to use it for maximum effect would also know its
    weaknesses and why *not* to use it that way.

  3. I’m glad to finally see someone cottoning on to this. I love Twitter and am on there frequently. I also think that it has some interestingly inbuilt social controls that force people to be civil. If someone can simply block you for being a jerk, it’s hard to harass them or bully them. I read a recent article about kids not liking Twitter because it was too “public” and “embarrassing”. Let me give a darker view on this–it’s a lot harder to bully other kids on a social network that is dominated by professional adults who will probably come in and kick you hard for your behavior.

    But I do think that social networking in general has the potential to foster mob behavior. I’ve seen a lot of people piling on to the big “help Iran” cause without thinking too hard about what their real goals are and the potential effects of what they’re doing. Or the identities of those asking for help. Considering how easy it is to set up a fake account, I think it’s very relevant to ask whom we are dealing with and who is asking us to intervene.

    But you know, people have been doing this since the ’90s, at least. I remember some seriously brutal anti-Muslim sentiment of the lynch-mob variety on totally unrelated Yahoo Groups immediately after 9/11 (I tangled with one guy on a Templar group who declared we should have a new crusade led by a resurgent Order because “one billion Muslims is 999 million too many” and never mind that the Templars were actually tolerant of non-Christians). Yet, just a few years later, those same individuals were calmly asserting they’d been balanced and fair at that time, even acting as if they’d always been tolerant and supportive of Muslims. If you showed them their own messages, which were still in the group’s archive, to the contrary, they’d become incredibly angry and accuse you of flaming them.

    So, I think the potential has been there for quite some time. It’s just that Twitter and Facebook’s ability to “flashmob” in real time has finally brought it to people’s attention.

  4. Many people don’t realize that political bloggers and forums have been under attack for years. It isn’t just the scientific sites harassed by ‘deniers’ or educators driven to start their own service pushing back against being charged for teaching science in school by ‘intelligent design’ proponents : they have been a feature – plural on one thread! – for years.
    I’m a member of an international online community based in Australia currently under DDoS attacks. Perhaps the newsdesk covers too many of the resource wars, droughts, mad schemes which devastate nations and eliminate species wholesale. I’m thinking of Care 2.
    I have quite a collection of mad-sounding essays and links : which is pretty desperate because I try to sift out the absolute wildest.
    They are truly scary : not that so-called conventional news isn’t when you play with translation tools and RSS alternative media.
    There are fanzines on my links page too. Do you have a Del.icio.us file you’d like to network ?

  5. Twitter seems to be a rising technology-star in the Iran election but what about our own media in the Western World? Our media is forever focused on what is popular to consumers. So if cricket or anything else popular-culture is more popular than election issues, these things receive the coverage, unfortunately. However what’s really ironic is that individual members of a society are not really deciding what is popular but rather the media decides what gets the most coverage and media really dictates what is popular. Albeit individuals have some choice about what to pay attention to – from a limited menu of issues presented by the media – but these “choices” are not necessarily ones that are most important. Missing today is any intellectual debate; however, sites and forums that allow free range user generated content about whatever is of interest can be a step in the right direction where individuals can decide what is important.

  6. Care2 definitely attracts the crazies, as do some of the science sites. I even see the fundamentalists in both the believer and atheist camps going at each other on places like IMDB. Ironically, I think there’s better moderation on places where such discussion is ontopic, so anyone who wants to engage in that type of out-of-control discussion deliberately chooses other venues where it’s both offtopic and not well-moderated. Also, unfortunately, right-wing radio and talk-show programs seem to have given certain individuals the idea that 1st Amendment rights include going onto moderate or left-wing sites (like Care2) and drowning out any rational discussion with all-caps rants until they’re either banned (in which case, they can play the martyr) or they shout down everyone else. It’s our tolerance of this kind of bullying in our public discussion boards that especially concerns me. Radio coordination of genocide does not start out of nothing. You boil that particular frog via a long series of small steps. Allowing unbalanced posters to drown out everyone remotely rational in important public debate is one of those steps.

  7. “I remember some seriously brutal anti-Muslim sentiment of the lynch-mob
    variety on totally unrelated Yahoo Groups immediately after 9/11…. Yet,
    just a few years later, those same individuals were calmly asserting
    they’d been balanced and fair at that time, even acting as if they’d
    always been tolerant and supportive of Muslims.”

    I don’t doubt that such expressions of anger existed and were later
    disavowed by their speakers, or that they were wholly spontaneous; I
    would ask how many actual *acts* of retribution against Muslims they
    actually produced — and by this I mean individual, spontaneous, “ground-
    level” crimes against Muslim citizens directly, not the subsequent
    military campaigns aimed at removing the Taliban and then the Hussein
    regime. There may have been a few, but they were far fewer than one
    would expect from the scope of the hostility expressed via the ‘Net. *I*
    certainly don’t remember reading about any anti-Muslim riots, or lynching
    of individual Muslims, in any American city in the last months of 2001.

    The Internet as a communications medium is certainly faster and more
    penetrating than any analog, but it also remains oddly ephemeral and
    unstable, perhaps precisely *because* it is so easy to accumulate numbers
    of voices that in any other medium would reflect significant public
    sentiment. But nobody has ever said of e-mails that “for every e-mail
    you get there are 100 people who felt the same way but didn’t write”.
    People already know exactly how easy it is for fringe ideas to propagate
    by sheer volume and repetition on the ‘Net, which is why anything coming
    off the ‘Net is still suspect, Twitter not excluded.

    This may change in future as the ‘Net evolves. But technology is also
    inextricably linked to the culture that discovers and popularizes it,
    and the Twitter-crowd just doesn’t seem the sort to go up in spontaneous
    civil fury from a few messages. It’s just too easy to get half a dozen
    contradictory messages half a minute later.

  8. “There may have been a few, but they were far fewer than one
    would expect from the scope of the hostility expressed via the ‘Net. *I*
    certainly don’t remember reading about any anti-Muslim riots, or lynching
    of individual Muslims, in any American city in the last months of 2001.”

    You didn’t hear about anti-Muslim sentiment because it was not generally reported by the media, who were pretty anti-Muslim themselves at the time. I know that I felt even less safe speaking about this kind of thing offline than online.

    For example, a Muslim friend of mine and her young son were stalked in a university book store shortly after 9/11 by a very large and angry young man who shouted racial epithets at them. Know what others in the bookstore did about it? Absolutely nothing. Another friend (not Muslim) saw some young Arab men who were accosted by airport security for…speaking Arabic. Oh. The horror. Whatever were they thinking, speaking their own native language in an airport?

    And, you know, there’s Gitmo. And rendition. Who needs to drum up mobs when the population you are harassing knows that any of its more-outspoken members can be quietly arrested and whisked off with no legal recourse? I’m sure *that* made American Muslims feel absolutely safe and confident in their own government.

    As an historian in medieval Islam and crosscultural issues, I was very alarmed by 9/11. When you’ve studied how *exactly* the same pattern played out 600 years ago in Spain, it’s a lot harder to float down that big African barge with everybody else. Muslims and Jews were harassed there for over a century before the first pogroms started in the 1370s. Before I went to Africa in 1991, I had no idea that American society was anti-Muslim. When I got back in ’94, after living two years in a Muslim village, I was shocked by the intensity of the casual, unconscious prejudice, even bigotry. So, it didn’t exactly start with 9/11. It just got exponentially worse that day. Why else would we be stupid enough to subsequently invade a country run by a secular dictator on a pretext that, on the flimsiest of examinations, was dodgy to the point where we couldn’t get the UN wholeheartedly behind us?

    Until pretty recently, I was fairly circumspect about whom I talked to about this subject, since speaking to the wrong person about it invariably started an anti-Muslim rant. Even as late as last October, it was still fashionable to shout down anyone who might be sympathetic to Muslims, either on or offline (if I hear one more complacently patronizing white male pat me on the head and assure me how wonderfully egalitarian the West is compared to those nasty woman-hating Muslims, I may give in to the Maenad deep down in every woman and slap that person silly). I would compare the immediate post-9/11 atmosphere in the U.S. to the McCarthy era (it was somewhat calmer in Britain where I was at the time. At least until the London bombings and they started shooting Hispanic guys for trying to make a train while wearing coats in warm weather). They didn’t exactly have big anti-communist riots, then, either, but everyone even remotely involved in it would agree that time was scary as hell. They didn’t call the McCarthy trials “witch-hunts” for nothing.

    It does not take as much as you may think to spark these things off. Just a few weeks ago, I read a news item where Mossad was warning people about using Facebook because it might be used to recruit terrorists. Seriously? What, are we going to shut down *all* independent online discourse because it *might* be a venue for terrorists? If we are going to go back to that, then maybe we should just give up and look in the mirror, Pogo, because the enemy, he would be us.

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