Can Facebook Save the World
November 20, 2008 8:34 AM   Subscribe

"Can Facebook defeat terrorism?" wonders Matt Armstrong. A conference of both web and social entrepreneurs, policy wonks, and activists will convene to create a how-to guide for changing the world through social networking tools. Jared "Children of Jihad" Cohen was a driving force behind the initiative. We've seen social networking impact an election, while others are already trying to change the world with it. This conference, while exciting and important, raises a few questions. Just look at the list who's convening it: "Facebook, Google, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, Columbia Law School and the U.S. Department of State Convene the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit."

As Steve Corman notes:
"...merely giving Facebook (or other social networking technologies) to people in other terrorism hotspots will probably do little until the right social conditions develop for them to have an imact. Facebook, by itself, is not enough to cause social movements that can defeat terrorism." Well said.
Aren't the unique cultural conditions in each of these "hot spots" being ignored under the relatively new (and market-driven) idea of "global youth culture"? MTV is one of the organizers of this event, and they are certainly invested in promoting a global youth culture (read Naomi Klein's No Logo, ch 5 for more on this). Is this the apotheosis of certain brand identities, the moment when corporations merge with the government and with the left simultaneously? Will this initiative address the challenges of creating peaceful dialogue among cultures, or simply become overly enamored of the tools at its disposal? Do young people want their social networking time to be productive? Could Spam bring it all down? What about the digital divide? Shouldn't we be focusing on the more pressing technological issues that most people face? Can we do both at the same time?

I'm very curious to hear feedback from the Blue on this.
posted by cal71 (27 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
when corporations merge with the government - I was under the impression this happened long ago.
posted by adamvasco at 8:54 AM on November 20, 2008

If I were a resident in a nation sympathetic to (or run by) terrorist groups, and given events such as this, I wouldn't feel too confident that my anti-terrorism Facebook page (no matter how anonymous I try to make it) wouldn't result in my "disappearing" somehow.

That said, organization is the first step to enacting change in any sphere. Might as well use the tools at-hand.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:54 AM on November 20, 2008

Trying real hard not to snark about this, but how the hell are kids hooking up and arranging to meet up supposed to defeat terrorism? Because once we get all the [ethnic-zone] children to log on to facebook and hookup, this will provide them energy to push back against the societal self-defeatist norms they've been brought up in that encourage them to believe that they have no way out, their society is oppressed, the oppressors will never end unless killed, and so the only way to force a way out is to kill them?

Will I understand this more if I go get some Starbucks and read it again?
posted by cavalier at 8:55 AM on November 20, 2008

Can Facebook defeat terrorism?

posted by chunking express at 9:02 AM on November 20, 2008 [9 favorites]

Just so long as they understand that whatever conflict they are embroiled in will be over well before Facebook takes it's clammy hands off their data.
posted by mandal at 9:15 AM on November 20, 2008

Can Facebook defeat terrorism?

I have a hammer, so this must be a nail ...
posted by outlier at 9:19 AM on November 20, 2008

Can Facebook defeat terrorism?

They hate us for our drunk sorority girl nipple slips and general unemployability.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:21 AM on November 20, 2008

The combination of Facebook's secretivity and hostility to humans with law enforcement (especially a hot-button issue like "terrorism")....shudder
posted by DU at 9:22 AM on November 20, 2008

Shorter me: I might prefer it if terrorism defeats Facebook.
posted by DU at 9:31 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Spiders was based on a similar idea--the Gore Administration uses every technological gadget in the book to go after bin Laden, including landing tiny robots with cameras everywhere in Afghanistan. They are monitored by the general public through the internet--millions just walking a spider around looking for some sort of evidence of bin Laden. People could just log on and look and control the robot and its camera.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:31 AM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

From 26-year-old Jared Cohen's book:

"I knew this meant going to dangerous places and putting myself on the line. But I wasn't new to this."


"In what would turn out to be a very poor decision on my part -- one that would make my time in Iran extremely trying -- I shared my plans for my time in Iran with my "escort".

I didn't know it then, but all Americans in Iran are required to travel with a government-assigned escort..."


No offense, but I don't see a Jewish 26-year-old effectively getting the large masses of young Arabs to turn away from anti-American, anti-Israeli violence by helping get them on the intarweb.

There is nothing on the web that would convince them decisively that they are wrong about Americans, Israelis, and their plans for controlling and manipulating Arab countries and their leaders. Quite the opposite, really.
posted by markkraft at 9:37 AM on November 20, 2008

markkraft: Having spent time with young people in Iran myself, and being a young Jewish American, I can say that I've had interesting conversations over various web-based programs with Iranians of all stripes, and we have gone some distance in adjusting each other's perceptions. Of course, it's the content of those conversations that matters, not the fact of having them.
But the larger question here is developing these technologies as organizational tools for social change. Though I noticed that yahoo 360 was far more popular in Iran (and more accessible) than Facebook, the idea is the same. Though, given the role of poverty and underemployment in the growth of radicalism, any approach that doesn't address those issues is doomed to irrelevance, I think.
posted by cal71 at 9:47 AM on November 20, 2008

No offense, but I don't see a Jewish 26-year-old effectively getting the large masses of young Arabs to turn away from anti-American, anti-Israeli violence by helping get them on the intarweb.

There is nothing on the web that would convince them decisively that they are wrong about Americans, Israelis, and their plans for controlling and manipulating Arab countries and their leaders. Quite the opposite, really.
posted by markkraft at 9:37 AM on November 20 [+] [!]

No offense, but Iranians are not Arabs. You may be speaking more generally, but the quote you provide is about Iran.
posted by proj at 10:08 AM on November 20, 2008

Dude, half the time FaceBook can't even defeat boredom. I think it's got a long way to go to defeat terrorism.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:08 AM on November 20, 2008

I heard Iran's president is a rabid Howcast denier.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:03 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is the typical terrorist organization more or less powerful than Hasbro, do you suppose?
posted by Wolfdog at 12:27 PM on November 20, 2008

What Thorzdad sed. Plus - I think having conversations over web-based programs are critical. It is, essentially, the open flow of information that can erode the power of tyrants and defuse terrorists.
It is the communication that’s critical. Is facebook that medium? No, probably not.
But mostly a will to destroy stems from an inability to create. Hitler is an obvious reference here, but let’s look at what I’m alluding to instead of specific details. There are exceptions. Impotence in terms of creative execution doesn’t mean you’re going to blow something up. Similarly, not all terrorists are failed artists. But there is a will to a vision there - and mostly - to have that vision shared. Whether it’s a religious idea, a secular political one, economic, whatever - people want to at the very least be heard and/or have their vision shared.
That’s about 98% of the cause of the kind of tension that creates extremists right there.
Funny how people are stymied that so many terrorists are erudite intelligent folks who can be quite sensitive in many ways.
The brutal, the callous, the unthinking - they’re not the same kind of threat those people are. And, because they don’t really value ideas, they tend to just become criminals. A guy who will die for an idea - that takes a measure of insight.
If that insight can be shared, given due consideration, so forth - that defuses that tension.

Now, when conflict analysis came into vogue, everyone and their brother was saying the common causal factor in terrorism was a lack of education. Meanwhile in Sri Lanka (which has one of the highest literacy rates in SE Asia - 95-ish(?) percent) it’s suicide bomb central even the Indian PM (Rajiv Gandhi) was killed by a (female!) suicide bomber.
Yet after sept. 11 - yeah, they’re terrorists ‘cause they’re stupid. uh huh.
Ted “Unibomber” Kazinski (sp?) was a Harvard grad. In Peru, Guzman was a university professor, Maoist rebel Baburam Bhattari has a doctorate (civil engineering I think), Al-Zawahry was a medical doctor. Remember Mohammad Atta the engineering student? Yeah, spoke three languages. How many you speak?

So the problem isn’t information or education, and we know these people are literate and web savvy, so the problem is that they’re getting single source fanatic rhetoric without critical consideration.

So - what’s necessary is not this facile MTV facebook b.s. - because I don’t think a guy who speaks three languages and holds a doctorate degree is going to take “bunny123”’s comments too seriously.

I’d like to see an equivalent of “Radio Free X” or some such - a non-corporate, perhaps moderated, communication website. Otherwise folks aren’t going to buy it.
Metafilter, I think, isn’t a bad example. It’d have to have a different sort of core.
But right now a lot of these otherwise intelligent folks are in an echo chamber.
(Hell, it happens here sometimes - you see the people who don’t want to listen to reason or any opinion outside their worldview, sometimes it gets contentious, but let’s recognize that they’re not unintelligent).

So it is very much rooted in whatever cultural milieu someone brings to the web site. I have very few serious disagreements with folks here dispite holding contrary opinions. In part, because I’m willing to listen and so are they. But mostly because the form allows for that. And I realize it’s in my best interest to listen. And so (unlike a very very few I can think of on here) opinions can change, evolve, and clarify as the information flowers.
(I mean, there were a bunch of folks who had serious reservations about Obama and/or predicted he’d never be president. Certainly they were incorrect about that - but I think it speaks volumes that as time progressed and they interacted their opinions evolved. Being smart isn’t about being right, it’s about altering your premises or outlook when you see the information more accurately or more broadly or in depth. So those folks deserve loads of credit. We were none of us born knowing every damned thing we know now. I’m proud of my knowlege because I know how many mistakes I’ve had to make to earn it. So mistakes are nothing to be ashamed about. Quite the contrary.)

Therefore, any conflict reduction strategy should focus on knowlege based sources of conflict (and the institutions that support them - some madrassa, say, in Pakistan) so reducing fanaticism should occur independent of where the targets are and irrespective of the individuals, etc. spreading them.

The target is the information, the distorted facts, the culture of intolerance, not the religious or secular or cultural institutions or milieus themselves.

So you need a multispectrum approach, not a linear solution focused on the matter as a problem to be solved.

As I’ve said before - it’s not enough to be right. You’ve got to get dirty and maybe risk getting your own preconceptions challenged.
The engagement needs to be open and honest and focused on the clear and accurate flow - NOT dissemination - of knowlege and information.

If you touch, you gotta be touched. The communication has to be honest.

On facebook, I don’t see that happening.
But just from their first principles “we gotta convince these guys to fight terrorists” it’s doomed to fail.
It’s oversimplified and ignores how complex motivations are in human behavior.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:34 PM on November 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Terrorism and Al Qaeda are not large organizations, they're an idea (yes even Al Qaeda). With ideas, it's like any contagious disease: individual impact and virility. Terrorism has pretty big impacts on the individual worldview (people are willing to die for the ideals), and disenfranchised people in the Middle East are susceptible.

Facebook's primary goal is to increase serendipity and communication.

If Facebook is introduced and popularized, the question becomes: is the likelihood of anti-terrorist ideas spreading on their network going to beat out the idea of pro-terrorist ideas? It's clearly not, these sentiments may work on the larger populace, but anti-terrorist sentiments aren't going to work on people already pissed off about their lot in life (and you need only a small minority). On the other hand, it will invariably increase the likelihood of individuals susceptible to the terrorism idea to discover it, because social networks are all about discovery, networks, and information. I would argue that lone-agent terrorism is incredibly contemporary, with the only historical analogue being piracy (however, as you can see with the oil tanker, it requires huge organization infrastructure). It's recent advances in information that lets terrorism thrive and facebook will be another tool.

No, the way to solve piracy is twofold, create really convincing arguments that spread like a youtube video, and more importantly reduce the virility of terrorist ideas by killing the incentives. Creating a burgeoning middle-class in the Middle East sounds a lot harder than programming PHP and making a friends list.
posted by amuseDetachment at 12:47 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, that conference has a great lineup: a guy who splits his time between the State Department and the American Enterprise institute; a right-wing Colombian activist; the liberal hawks of the Genocide Intervention Network; some pig-ignorant dotcom 2.0 guy; and Whoopi Goldberg. I would be shocked if the bringing together of such intellectual giants did not result in the immediate disbandment of all terror groups and the instant conversion of all Planet Earth to Baptism and the Washington Consensus. It's just like John Kerry said back in the day: the problem with Bush's current approach is that he failed to involve Whoopi Goldberg and Facebook.
posted by stammer at 1:26 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Smedleyman's comment are thoughtful and worth considering and enlarging upon. Every nation, culture, religion, group, family, indoctrinates its young. This is a daunting problem to ask people to go against their tribe. If evidence on the ground points to their tribe being right at least a portion of the time, the job is harder still. Teaching thinking skills such as critical thinking, creative thinking, or strategic thinking is a precursor to changing perceptions or challenging the status quo. What individual, political party, or nation can honestly stand forward and say, "We have the answer?" Even world accepted guidelines against murder and torture that seem so black and white are open to discussion among many groups.

Facebook, and communication in general, can help weaken stereo types and ideologies and that is all to the good. I can't comment on which medium of communication is the most effective. Perhaps the artists and philosophers of the world can do more than clever technologies. Or perhaps the Serious Games movement would prove to be more powerful helping people see things from different points of view. It is just as important for us to add possibilities as to pull them down.
posted by Thought Juggler at 2:29 PM on November 20, 2008

"Can Facebook defeat terrorism?"


It's probably an elevator-pitch way of asking a bigger question, I know, but as stated, the idea is laughable.

Eliminating poverty could, though. Like that's gonna happen.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:36 PM on November 20, 2008

People still use facebook?
posted by signal at 6:41 PM on November 20, 2008

the word hack doesn't even begin to describe Jared Cohen.
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:42 PM on November 20, 2008

The target is the information, the distorted facts, the culture of intolerance, not the religious or secular or cultural institutions or milieus themselves.

The "culture of intolerance" didn't invade Afghanistan twice. We did that.

Look, suppose they do use Facebook to talk to one another in a free and unfettered forum. What will they say to each other? Some of you seem to hope they'll start questioning their own cultures, religions, assumptions, etc. That's all fine and good, but if they're having an honest discussion about terrorism, they're all going to take for granted that terrorism is, first and foremost, a method of resisting conquest and oppression. So they're first going to ask, "If we don't resist through terrorism, how are we going to resist?" Someone will then point out that armed resistance repelled the two-headed invasion of Afghanistan in the eighties. They'll also point out that car bombs and other terrorist tactics have contributed enormously to convincing the US to pull out of Iraq. They'll probably also explain that if any sort of effective resistance (peaceful or otherwise) to the corrupt Saudi government were ever to rear its head inside Saudi Arabia, those involved would (literally) lose their heads. Violence is the most effective means of resistance.

(Though there actually are some examples of peaceful resistance. In Iraq, there have been non-violent protests and political pressure. But ask yourself whether those would have been effective without the threat of violence looming behind them. More importantly, ask yourself how people in the middle east would answer this question.)

We all know these people are going to have to overthrow their governments. But in most cases, that's going to require violence. These governments are just too well armed by their master, the United States.

So if there's going to be a discussion about peaceful methods of fighting middle eastern terrorism, I think it needs to start here, in the US. We need to figure out how we're going to stop the US from oppressing these people. This would give them options other than blowing people up or giving in. I think it's condescending, hypocritical, and insane to lecture them about their "culture of intolerance" while refusing to acknowledge our own culture of mass murder.
posted by Clay201 at 11:21 PM on November 20, 2008

“The "culture of intolerance" didn't invade Afghanistan twice. We did that.”

That’s a non sequitur. At least as far as my reasoning is concerned. The invasion of Afghanistan has nothing to do with what I’m saying. If you’re addressing the FPP than my point somewhat supports yours (or vice versa) - as I said - from first principles - the premise here is wrong.

But so too is looking at this as America’s ‘fault.’ There’s little question there are U.S. policies that are provocative.
And changing them is one step, of course.

But that doesn’t alter the fact that such changes require input and communication - often from the people who we might consider terrorists or sympathizers.

I know it’s hip to be anti-American. But to blame all terrorism in the world on the U.S. and U.S. oppression is just as arrogant as denying the U.S. can do any wrong.

It’s not an American problem. It’s a world problem. As a matter of fact the U.S. is in the best position to (not that they have or will) listen and communicate with people throughout the world in an open manner.

Not simply because of U.S. policies on free speech (other countries have similar policies, albeit not as liberal in some respects) but because of the technology infrastructure.

Now I agree that the Post is U.S.A.-centric, but terrorism existed long before the U.S. and, believe it or not, there is terrorism that occurs in other countries that is not spurred by U.S. oppression.

I mentioned in another thread gsg9 taking on the Islamic Jihad Union - they’re a group you’re going to be hearing more about along with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan - what with what’s going on in that region and in Pakistan.

The U.S. had nothing to do with the formation of that group. It was formed out of the poverty and exclusionary politics in Uzbekistan by ethnic Uzbeks who wanted to overthrow the government and install Sharia law.
The politics on both sides of that conflict are insular and intolerant - Uzbekistan is one of the worlds most repressive societies.
This is the U.S.’ fault how?
You want to argue oil companies - different story. But that dance has been going on since before the soviets took over. Hell, those people have been guerilla fighters since Alexander tried to conquer the place.
I say that with some measure of admiration.
But simply put - one does not enter a conflict with open and tolerant thoughts about one’s enemy.

So the matter is not as simple as addressing “our own culture of mass murder” since terrorism is not an exclusively American problem. It’s arrogant and hypocritical to think that a simple change in U.S. policy would obviate terrorism world wide.
Not that such changes wouldn’t be welcome, and not that such changes would not be conducive to alleviating some resistance conflict.

But it is now, and has been since before the time of Hassan-i-Sabah and his counterparts in the crusades - the method of groups seeking conflict to dehumanize and alienate - and to those ends restrict communication with the outside and focus members of the culture to a single point of thought.

This is a common tactic used throughout history (as I’ve said - by assassins and crusaders and many other groups based along religious, ethnic and economic lines) used to insulate and cohere a group and then mobilize them.

Opening up communications in a free and non-didactic manner - that is - not only recognizing our flaws as the U.S. - but also understanding that we may not necessarily have the power to fix the world and that it’s all about us - reaching out as people and spreading simple critical thought and communication about ideas, that point both ways - would eliminate the insular nature of those groups.

I agree ‘eliminating terrorism’ is a goal limited in scope. But I’ve said so myself.
The kind of communication would have the benefit of teaching us not how we can solve a problem that we take all the credit for creating because we’re just SO powerful - but rather - would allow greater empathy for our fellow humans not as “Sri Lankans” or “Americans” or “Japanese” but as humans.

And as those borders become more information permiable so too would ideas and groups of ideas and interests grow - such that I feel closer to “Tamil952” because he likes, say, half-life and modding and so forth and we can talk about why he is so pissed off about something going on in Jakarta and we can look more to root causes and the ideas that drive them rather than this emphasis on identity (for good or ill).

Is that insulation of identity that causes a hell of a lot of conflict. It is that which leads to a lack of empathy - and the intellectualization of a cause (and human lives) that allows a terrorist to objectify and deliberately target innocent people.

Granted one needs to diminish empathy to fight in a war (in whatever capacity) but I’m not arguing there should be some sort of mutual exclusivity there.
It’s far easier to just kill someone than understand them and accomodate them in the world.
If the sort of program I’ve outlined diminishes that, so be it. It would be welcome. And, I’d agree, likely contrary to the objectives of the folks involved in this facebook program.

But from my standpoint, policies would likely change as the worldview changed as opposed to a more of a forced shift over the objections of the ignorant, apathetic or selfish and callous.

As I’ve said, trying to force this change with all this corporate sponsorship and unilateral persuasive argument is doomed to fail before it gets started.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:03 AM on November 21, 2008

"Can Facebook defeat terrorism?"

posted by mr dodo at 2:33 PM on November 21, 2008

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