Social networks might promote democracy, but they also empower the enemies of freedom.
In this week’s Newsweek, Niall Ferguson looks at how the power of online networking is used by all sides in battles of democracy.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that information technology—in particular social networking through the Internet—is changing the global balance of power. The “Facebook Generation” has already been credited with the overthrow of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. For a brief period, the darling of Tahrir Square was the young Google executive Wael Ghonim.
Yet there is another side to the story. It is not only proponents of democracy who know how to exploit the power of online networking. It is also the enemies of freedom.
Ask yourself: just how did the murderous mob in Mazar-e Sharif find out about the burning of a Quran in Florida? Look no further than the Internet and the mobile phone. Since 2001 cell-phone access in Afghanistan has leapt from zero to 30 per cent.
Or consider the fact that, before Facebook took down a page called “Third Palestinian Intifada”—which proclaimed that “Judgment Day will be brought upon us only once the Muslims have killed all of the Jews”—it had notched 350,000 “likes.”
It seems paradoxical. In Samuel Huntington’s version of the post–Cold War world, there was going to be a clash between an Islamic civilisation that was stuck in a medieval time warp and a Western civilisation that was essentially equivalent to modernity. What we’ve ended up with is something more like a mashup of civilizations, in which the most militantly antimodern strains of Islam are being channeled by the coolest technology the West has to offer.
Here’s a good example. According to the Jihadica website, there is now a special data package produced by the “Mobile Detachment” of the “al-Ansar al-Mujahideen Forum” especially for cell phones. Users can download encryption software, pictures, and 3GP-format video clips with titles like “A Martyr Eulogizing Another Martyr” by the Somalia-based Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen. Also available to users is the electronic magazine al-Sumud (“Resistance”) published by the Afghan branch of the Taliban, and edifying documents—available in both MS Word and Adobe formats—like “How to Prepare for Your Afterlife.” Killer apps, indeed.
Then there is Inspire, the online magazine published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and aimed at aspiring jihadists in the West. In addition to bomb-making instructions, it also publishes target lists of individuals against whom fatwas have been proclaimed. No one should pretend that these messages do not find receptive ears. In May 2010 Roshonara Choudhry stabbed the British M.P. Stephen Timms after having watched 100 hours of extremist sermons by Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Where did she find these sermons? On YouTube, of course. Al-Awlaki’s other followers include the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan, the Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
In short, Google’s pro-democracy Wael Ghonim is probably a less significant figure than Fouad X, the head of IT for Hizbullah in Lebanon, who tells Joshua Ramo (at the beginning of his superb book The Age of the Unthinkable) that “our email is flooded with CVs” from Islamist geeks wanting to “serve a sacred cause.”
So far, so bad. Now here’s the real problem. Many of these same Islamist geeks (among them Al-Awlaki) have hailed the so-called Arab Spring as a golden opportunity. The March 29 issue of Inspire declared: “The revolutions that are shaking the thrones of dictators are good for the Muslims, good for the mujahideen, and bad for the imperialists of the West and their henchmen in the Muslim world.” The clash of civilizations would have been easy for the West to win if it had simply pitted the ideas and institutions of the 21st century against those of the seventh. No such luck. In the new mash of civilizations, our most dangerous foes are the Islamists who understand how to post fatwas on Facebook, email the holy Quran, and tweet the call to jihad.
Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University and a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, was published in November.