Credit CristÃ³bal Schmal
Turning Point: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria declares a war on Twitter
For those of us who have enjoyed access to the Internet for decades now, it can be pretty difficult to remember our first online interactions. But there are plenty of people for whom that feeling is recent and powerful: In just the past five years, more than a billion users have connected to the Internet for the first time. Whether on a desktop or a smartphone, through broadband or Googleâs high-altitude balloon Wi-Fi network, they are only nowexperiencing how profound the simple act of getting online can be. Consider, for instance, that a girl in a schoolhouse in rural Indonesia may read this article on a tablet today â something that was impossible for her as recently as a year ago. Her experience online, when she leaves this article and ventures out onto the rest of the Web, is one that holds great potential.
John Perry Barlow wrote in his essay âA Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspaceâ that the Internet promised âa world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.â In many ways, that promise has been realized. The Internet has created safe spaces for communities to connect, communicate, organize and mobilize, and it has helped many people to find their place and their voice. It has engendered new forms of free expression, and granted access to ideas that didnât exist before. Children have educations they never would have gotten otherwise; entrepreneurs have started businesses they couldnât even have imagined without it. It has created friendships, strengthened connections and fulfilled dreams for billions of people around the world. Itâs been heralded as a driver of democracy, enabling citizen uprisings and on-the-ground reporting during the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East, the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and protests in Brazil and India this year.
Credit Weinberg-Clark Photography
As with all great advances in technology, expanded Web access has also brought with it some serious challenges, like threats to free speech, qualms about surveillance and fears of online terrorist activity. For all the good people can do with new tools and new inventions, there are always some who will seek to do harm. Ever since thereâs been fire, thereâs been arson.
In Myanmar, connectivity fans the flames of violence against the Rohingya, the minority Muslim population. In Russia, farms of online trolls systematically harass democratic voices and spread false information on the Internet and on social media. And in the Middle East, terrorists use social media to recruit new members. In particular, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has harnessed social media to appeal to disaffected young people, giving them a sense of belonging and direction that they are not getting anywhere else. The militantsâ propaganda videos are high on style and production value. Theyâre slick and marketable. In short, they are deluding some people to believe that living a life fueled by hatred and violence is actually â¦ cool.
This is where our own relationship with the Internet, and with technology, must be examined more closely. The Internet is not just a series of tubes transmitting information from place to place, terminal to terminal, without regard for those typing on their keyboards or reading on their screens. The people who use any technology are the ones who need to define its role in society. Technology doesnât work on its own, after all. Itâs just a tool. We are the ones who harness its power.
Think back to the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s, during which the lives of minorities changed radically in a very short period of time as a result of concerted activism, inviting and open conversation and an empathy that had been missing to that point. Well, that was before people could meet in cyberspace and rally around a common set of ideals, before they could have a debate with someone in another hemisphere as if they were in the same room and before we could watch videos taken from peopleâs cellphones and see what others around the world are standing up for, and who they are standing up to.
Now we have all that at our disposal â we just need to take advantage of it. Itâs all too easy to use the Internet exclusively to connect with like-minded people rather than seek out perspectives that we wouldnât otherwise be exposed to. This sort of tribalism masks the need for common values and strong leadership. Societies are built one value, and one bargain, at a time. And itâs important we use that connectivity to promote the values that bring out the best in people.
The Internet is showing us the raw reality of the lives of oppressed people and their real needs, and it is also allowing some of our worst traits â in the form of envy, oppression and hate â to come into full view as well. We need strong leaders worldwide who will fight broadly for human progress and tolerance, and focus on bettering everyoneâs lives. We need leaders to use the new power of technology to allow us to broaden our horizons as individuals, and in the process broaden the horizons of our society.
Authoritarian governments tell their citizens that censorship is necessary for stability. Itâs our responsibility to demonstrate that stability and free expression go hand in hand. We should make it ever easier to see the news from another countryâs point of view, and understand the global consciousness free from filter or bias. We should build tools to help de-escalate tensions on social media â sort of like spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment. We should target social accounts for terrorist groups like the Islamic State, and remove videos before they spread, or help those countering terrorist messages to find their voice. Without this type of leadership from government, from citizens, from tech companies, the Internet could become a vehicle for further disaggregation of poorly built societies, and the empowerment of the wrong people, and the wrong voices.
The good news is, itâs all within reach. Intuition, compassion, creativity â these are the tools that we will use to combat violence and terror online, to drown out the hate with a broadly shared humanity that only the Web makes possible. Itâs up to us to make sure that when the young girl reading this in Indonesia on her tablet moves on from this page, the Web that awaits her is a safe and vibrant place, free from coercion and conformity.