To have the individual voice heard over those of the elite in society has long been a motivator in social movements. Every generation in civil society has faced significant tipping points, some of which have resulted in public calls for change. Usually, these calls have been made in the form of a unitary protest, and are often called public squares. Today, our public square has gone virtual.
Social media has been revered in this generation as a tool not only for social satisfaction by connecting people from around the globe, but for its function as a social-changer. The role it has played, and continues to play, in the Arab spring is very significant. It has given so many people a platform to speak from with their individual beliefs. No longer can the individual be silenced. Everyone’s voice has the potential to be heard.
When Mubarak tried to kill the internet in Egypt during his final struggle for power, Twitter started trending and calling on people from around the world to put pressure on his government. All it takes is one person to manage to get a message out, and one more willing to post it online. The possibility of outreach is exponential, and the end result is still yet to be determined.
The process is invigorating. Giving the individual a voice on the global stage is definitely a reason to be excited about social media, and there is no going back. Communication is only going to continue to increase, and the world is (technologically speaking, anyhow) getting smaller.
The Not So Pretty Picture
Yet there is a topic that has gotten much less attention than the positive effects of social media. The negative subtopics tend to revolve around hacking or cyber security, but what about simply users of these sites that have unconventional, if not insurgent, motives? What does social media really mean for war?
On June 19th, an incident occurred which put this question into some much needed perspective. The Somali insurgent group al-Shabab live tweeted their attack on the new UN compound which had moved for its first time into Somalia. Al-Shabab, which took responsibility for the attack, broadcast on Twitter what it claimed was a real-time account of the attack.
“We’ve just contacted the Mujahideen inside the #UNDP and they are still fighting some western mercenaries inside the compound,” one tweet stated.
“Inside the compound are several clueless foreigners who were lulled into a false sense of security by a strong disinformation campaign!” stated another.
An Inevitable Conversation
Perhaps the incidents are few and far between, or perhaps it’s just a conversation we do not want to have as a global community, but this is an appalling reality. How do we cope with this sort of immediate interaction with merciless killing and warfare? What is the role of these social media outlets when something like this occurs?
“To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.” This law seems to dictate order beyond the realm of physics. Social media can definitely be used as a force for good, but it is also changing the way conflict is conducted. It is equally as important to recognize the latter as it is the former, as difficult a topic as it is to confront. Some could argue that it has the potential to make warfare ‘less civilized’.The actions of al-Shabab during that attack were nothing short of barbaric. But the laws and conventions that govern international interactions come from a time when these questions of virtual interaction were not even conceivable.
Today, with diplomacy and warfare more complex than ever, not only do meetings between diplomats matter, but so does what embassies are tweeting, and what insurgents are as well. Indicators of the next conflict may first surface in the form of a trending hash-tag (#) rather than as headline news, and that is a reality that the security community needs to prepare for; and one that the civilian population probably won’t be able to brace itself for.