Castrating Hate-Fueled Leaderless Web 2.0 Swarms?

A low-budget Islamophobic video translated into Arabic and crafted to provoke, offend, and evoke outrage near the anniversary of 9/11 is the latest example of how almost anyone can incite powerful leaderless social media swarms.

The scary thing is a tech savvy but disturbed high school or college student could pull a similar stunt.

It turns out the producer of “Innocence of Muslims”—which mocks Muslims and the prophet Muhammad and incited mob protests against U.S. diplomatic missions in the Mideast—is an Egypt-born, southern Californian, radical Coptic Christian with a checkered past. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula pleaded no contest to federal bank fraud charges in 2010, was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison, and was ordered not to use computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer.

Apparently, he was able to break his probation’s computer ban through the use of a dozen pseudonyms. He also used pseudonyms to hire a cast and crew for a movie with the working title “Desert Warriors” and shoot part of the film in Los Angeles’s Blue Cloud Movie Ranch. As the video below notes, the film’s cast and crew are complaining that the inflammatory dialogue was dubbed in after filming and the prophet Muhammad character was originally somebody named George.

A decade ago it would have been unimaginable for a small-time swindler to gain access to international communications channels to spark rioting globally. Now, it’s looking like anyone with an Internet connection, multi-lingual language skills, and communications savvy in one form or another can.

Only time will tell how easy it will be to manipulate leaderless Web 2.0 swarms over the long term. To castrate inflammatory propaganda, you need to be able to enable free-flowing ideas to percolate and crowdsource the truth in an atmosphere of trust. When the emotions of rabid Islamophobes and extreme Islamists have both been aroused—in the worst atmosphere of misinformation and mistrust imaginable—this is easier said than done.

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About Monica

Monica specializes in strategic communications, web and new media, and print materials with an international or multi-cultural context. She has worked on national public outreach campaigns targeting multi-cultural audiences and has conceptualized, written, and/or designed multiple websites. Monica also has written, edited, and/or designed high-profile newsletters, brochures, and reports, including some prepared in collaboration with the White House. She holds a bachelor’s in journalism and a master of international service with a focus on international communication. Monica is based in Washington, D.C.

Comments

  1. Hi Monica, thank you for this post.  I was scheduled to leave on Friday for Tunisia to work on a train-the-trainers projects related to Networked NGOs and training trainers to who will work with women entrepreneurs to use social media.    I have been working in the Middle East for the past couple of years on social media capacity building projects for NGOS to use the tools for civil society goals –and while this instance is so sad, it shows how important these skills for NGO to embrace and use… I will reference your post in the one I’m preparing.

    •  @BethKanter Thanks, Beth! I agree this is a sad but important example of why NGOs need to embrace and use social media. I am glad to hear you especially are headed to a place like Tunisia where moderates largely carry the day to train women entrepreneurs to use social media. I look forward to reading about your successes and lessons learned on your blog.

      •  @BethKanter I have a follow up to my comment too. On second thought, I do not think Tunisia is the most culturally sensitive example. I meant I am glad to hear of your involvement in training women entrepreneurs there because of my respect for you. Tunisia’s culture and laws are heavily European influenced and in a few ways they are more liberal than Americans (e.g., topless bathing/swimming is allowed there). You have a great point that non-violent approaches–not ideology or where you may fall on the political or cultural spectrum–is the answer… along with respectful dialogue that does not intentionally (or unintentionally) inflame and divide.
         

        •  @CyberlandGal I have not yet traveled to Tunisia,although I worked with a team of in-country trainers and NGOs on a project that included 5 countries in the Arab world – as well as been involved with projects that included participants from countries all over MENA.    There are many nuances of culture and variations from country to country ….   I’ve done trainings  in Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, and UAE – and have written many blog posts on lessons learned!   My reflection on all this – as it relates to my own work is the importance of an emphasis of engagement skills along with the technical.

        •  @BethKanter Thanks again for commenting on my blog, Beth. I actually attended college for a year in France, which is full of Tunisians and other North Africans, so I am particularly familiar with their culture and world view. This does not represent the Tunisians I’ve met: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57513174/dozens-storm-breach-wall-of-u.s-embassy-in-tunisia/  I agree totally that engagement and technical skills are key … along with intent and respect. I am finding this situation sad on so many levels and have my fingers crossed non-violent protest and discussions that further understanding carry the day.

  2. Here’s my follow up through after reading your insightful piece … Let’s not frame this as a “social media for good vs evil” pissing match.  Social media is an accelerate … so yes, the movie was disgusting and highly insulting to Islamic religion    Why can’t we use this opportunity to talk about non-violent approaches to differences?  

  3. Here’s a link to Beth Kanter’s post on the subject, which mentions this post: http://www.bethkanter.org/networks-hatred-civilsociety/ . I especially appreciated a comment in Beth’s post from Lini Srivasta about “dangerous speech” and the need to build resilient networks that can react to hate, violence, and “bad” content faster and create “positive” content to crowd out the negative.” That was a point I was trying to make, but Ms. Srivasta said it much more eloquently. The whole post is an insightful read.

  4. While in a sense I agree with you that “To castrate inflammatory propaganda, you need to be able to enable free-flowing ideas to percolate and crowdsource the truth in an atmosphere of trust.”  Yet – it must be stated that a precursor to this in an educated and informed public, one that can detect propaganda and media manipulation.  Without such media literacy, more, free flowing ideas do not crowdsource into truth they get jumbled with propaganda.
     
    I think the steps to prevent such manipulations by media outlets is as follows:
     
    1. Teaching and Training in Media Literacy; detecting and understanding propaganda, distortions, and skill building in fact checking on rumors.  
    2. Skills and Capacity building: research, (online or thru community members) fact checking of rumors, news stories, speeches and history. 
    3.  Training in non-violent social action; protest, sit-ins, boycotts etc.  

  5. peaceforsale says:

    This situation really hits home not only because of my work in peacebuilding and the media (social and traditional) but also because I know this community here in Los Angeles and Orange County.  The people who created this film have found that they can make money by criticizing and insulting Islam.  They have found an audience in some circles where “exposing” Islam with the ultimate goal.  This is not new nor breaking news (Sadly).  Now thru social media – the world has become the audience.  Social media, with its ability to augment and amplify small voices (in this case YouTUBE) has the capacity to spread “News” like wild fire.
    While in a sense I agree with you, CyberlandGal  that “To castrate inflammatory propaganda, you need to be able to enable free-flowing ideas to percolate and crowdsource the truth in an atmosphere of trust.”  Yet – it must be stated that a precursor to this in an educated and informed public, one that can detect propaganda and media manipulation.  Without such media literacy, more, free flowing ideas do not crowdsource into truth they get jumbled with propaganda. While free speech and open media has brought on Revolutions such as the Arab Uprising, it can do what just happened this past week also, augment and amplify rumors and false information.  I too agree the equation is not hate media vs. peace media (good verses evil) only,  there is irresponsible and uninformed media.  

    •  @peaceforsale Thanks for commenting on my blog, Monica! I particularly liked your point about people finding they can make money criticizing Islam. The U.S. Institute of Peace and other think tanks have done a lot of fascinating (but sad) research on the link between organized crime and conflict. Criminals, such as Viktor Bout — see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11036569 — can purposefully escalate conflict for greed, not ideology. One possible interpretation of Mr. Nakoula’s original false claims — see  http://www.jewishjournal.com/bloggish/item/5_reasons_jews_didnt_make_the_anti_mohammed_video
      — was that he really was looking for investors to scam or bilk. Considering his checkered past, the “profit motive” — in addition to or rather than pure ideology — is more than a remote possibility. It’s scary that social media is enabling such “business opportunities.” I also agree with your point about an educated and informed public being a prerequisite for “free-flowing ideas to percolate and crowdsource the truth in an atmosphere of trust.” You’ve inspired a new post speculating on the impact of uneducated people in the developing world watching YouTube videos on mobile phones. Thanks again, Monica!

  6. peaceforsale says:

    I wrote more about media as a weapon of war in my blog: http://peaceforsale.org/2012/09/17/media-weapon-of-war-vs-tool-for-peace-part-1/   I hope to follow it up with some good news – how media is used as a tool for peace! 

  7. Here’s a good news update on leaderless swarms fostering understanding through nonviolent discussion and satire: http://blogs.wsj.com/dispatch/2012/09/17/newsweeks-muslim-rage-cover-mocked-on-twitter/?mod=e2tw

  8. An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment. There’s no doubt that that you need to write more about this topic, it may not be a taboo subject but typically people don’t talk about these issues. To thhe next! Kinnd regards!!

Trackbacks

  1. […] 2. Castrating Hate-Fueled Leaderless Web 2.0 Swarms?  Monica of Cyberland writes a great condensed retelling of events and also adds good analysis on the role of social media in augmenting a low-budget film and seemingly insignificant film on the worlds stage and the consequences it brings. […]

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