First published by the Huffington Post
Imagine what the 9/11 terror attacks would have looked like had YouTube, Facebook and Twitter been around at the time. Imagine the kinds of photo that would have appeared on Facebook, the tweets you might have received, or alternately, the farewell videos that the victims trapped in the WTC might have uploaded to YouTube in real time, taking leave of their loved ones forever against the backdrop of that frightful scene. Undoubtedly, Al-Qaeda's leaders would have rubbed their hands in glee at their success in amplifying the terror and suffering of the 'infidels'. This is only one example of how the entry of social networks into our lives could help terrorist organizations magnify the impact of a terrorist action.
For a long time now social media have been used in the service of global terror organizations, for the purpose of spreading messages, recruiting terrorists, obtaining information and enhancing inter-organizational connections. This month I was invited to participate in a conference held by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT). The talks at the panel in which I spoke - "New Media, Terror and Counter-Terrorism" - all led to the same conclusion: everything democracies can do on social media, terrorists can do better. However, as someone who is engaged in Public Diplomacy and Social Media, I wish to examine this question from a different angle, and propose a different approach, which in the long run might reduce the motivation of young people to join terrorist organizations, and challenge them within the very social environments where terrorism is bred.
At one of the conference sessions, entitled "Talking Heads", in which former heads of the Mossad and Shin-Bet (ISA) participated, former head of the Shin-Bet, Ami Ayalon, said that: "there is a strong correlation between Palestinian support for the peace process and actual levels of terror activity. The Hamas, which is dependent on Palestinian public opinion, will carry out fewer attacks if Palestinian public opinion opposes terrorist actions, and believes that the peace process will bring gains." This equation leads to another question: how can Israel put across the message that it wants peace to a public like Palestinian society, whose government-sponsored media are controlled by a pro-terror organization like Hamas.
Most terrorists in our world are born, raised, educated and recruited in non-democratic countries. The citizens of these countries know that the news that they consume from the local media is biased, one-sided, and does not necessarily represent the truth. As a result, residents of such countries often turn for information to foreign news outlets and overseas sources -- an avenue available today thanks to the internet. Thus, for example, when Israel's first official blog was launched in February 2006, more than 10 percent of its visitors were from Arab and Muslim countries. I believe, therefore, that if we remain committed to presenting the truth objectively, and avoid cheap propaganda, chances grow that we can help reduce the motivation to carry out terrorist actions against Israel. It's important to emphasize that I am not talking about government activity: messages coming from a government, any government, will always be perceived as tendentious propaganda. I am talking about the kind of communication that civil society, and in this case, Israeli civil society must establish with its neighbors, and this is possible by means of the social networks, which are making great inroads even into Arab societies in the Middle East.
Another point to think about is the following: when we in the West think about terrorists, we think in terms of stereotypes. We tend to forget that before they were recruited, terrorists were people like us, who took an interest in sports, music, cinema and romance. We have already forgotten that terrorists were not born into this role, but have rather been subject to indoctrination as part of a process of socialization. I suggest that opinion leaders and cultural figures in Muslim civil society, who carry influence over the younger generation, voice their condemnation of terror and their support for the right to live. Two examples of key persons in the Muslim world who are already using Social Media effectively to communicate their message are Queen Rania of Jordan and Nazanin Afshin Jam.
Queen Rania, one of the more prominent personalities in the Arab world who promote a positive message of peace and tolerance, uses social media in an intelligent and thoughtful way. Today her message is being communicated only in English. But the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular would have much to gain if the Queen's message were also communicated in Arabic and directed to young people in the Arab world. The very same youths who view the Queen as a role model will find her appeals much more persuasive, than those of any outsider who speaks in favor of coexistence and against terror.
Another example is the Iranian exile, former Miss Canada, and talented singer Nazanin Afshin Jam, who more than once has addressed the Iranian people in their own language. Through her music and her activity against child executions in Iran, Nazanin has managed to reach the homes and hearts of thousands of Iranians in Iran. Imagine what the Iranian revolution would have looked like if instead of one Nazanin, ten others like her had taken on a similar mission.
I am not naïve, the application of these ideas alone will not reduce the motivation of terrorist to carry out attacks, but in the fight against terror it is important to integrate elements from different disciplines. Social networks enable the free world to strike out against the terrorists on their own turf, within their own countries, and within their own societies. Until now the Western World has attempted to fight terror in many ways - some have been more successful, many of them less so. Alongside military strategies and intelligence efforts it is possible today, by means of social networks, to carry on a dialogue with potential terrorists, before they have given up their human values, and perhaps even prevent them from joining ranks with the devil.
*Author is Former Consul for Media and Public Affairs of Israel in NYC, the Asper Inst. IDC Herzliya