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From Arab Spring to Autumn Rage: The Dark Power of Social Media

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In 2010 Time Magazine's prestigious Person of the Year title went to two individuals. While its readers picked Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, the magazine's pick was Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook.

"Facebook is now the third largest country on earth and surely has more information about its citizens than any government does," the magazine noted. "Zuckerberg, a Harvard dropout, is its T-shirt-wearing head of state."

Assange, founder of the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, on the other hand, undermined entire nation states' public narratives of themselves by providing a platform where individuals can anonymously whistle blow and show their government's dark underbellies by uploading top secret documents. Spy agencies can only look on with envy and alarm.

In 2011, a fruit vendor made the cut. Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian who set himself on ablaze protesting police corruption, became literally the torch that lit the Arab Spring revolution that spread quickly throughout the Middle East. Bouazzi achieved this in his very public death because many who had cell phones recorded his protest and the subsequent videos kick-started the uprising. The revolution took all governments by surprise.

This year no doubt Time can add Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, aka Sam Bacile, as a major contender. An unknown filmmaker until this week, who fanned the fire in the Middle East with incendiary video clips that in effect mocked and insulted the prophet Mohammed and turned the whole Arab Spring of 2011 into Autumn Rage of 2012 Against the USA. Much evidence now points to the real filmmaker as an Egyptian Coptic Christian named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula who allegedly holds grudges against Islam. On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Nakoula was convicted two years ago on federal charges of financial fraud.

While the jury is out on who instigated the violence against U.S. personnel in Libya that resulted in the death of the American ambassador and three other personnel -- the attack was carefully planned, it was reported, and not the mere work of angry protesters -- few doubt that the film has a direct effect in stoking a combustible anger in the Middle East against what many consider as yet another American act of profanity against the sacred.

In the global age, it is no longer just dictators or overzealous elected head of states with power of preemptive strikes can direct history to the edge of an abyss, but also fruit vendors and lousy filmmakers. And if Zuckerberg is a kind of head of state of the third largest country and Julian Assange has become the equivalent of a CIA institution gone rogue, then Bouazzi, a private individual, has become the modern equivalent Joan of Arc. And soon, too, the director of "Innocence of Muslim" will become a kind of knuckle headed hater who nevertheless emerged with the extraordinary power to incite violence against America. That would make Al-Qaeda, by comparison, seem tongue tied.

For all its planning, for all its propaganda and brainwashing of the illiterate and easily duped to blow themselves up -- merely to garner dwindling media attention in the West -- Al Qaeda hasn't achieved what an inane video has. The film and its 13-minute YouTube trailer quickly undermined much of the United States' soft diplomacy in a region it considers of utmost important.

In a blog for the Boston Globe, a friend of slain ambassador Chris wrote to share her shock with this headline: "How could Chris Stevens die because of a YouTube clip?" But the answer is, alas, why not? In our information age, virtual friendship and break up can lead to suicide, and misinformation can create lynch mob in the real world.

A while back, Robert Young, an Internet entrepreneur noted that "People around the world are now learning how to leverage the incredible power inherent in the URL to create what is essentially a parallel universe of digital identities."

What he didn't predict is that people do not only leverage URL power for self-promotion or product sales, but to change the outcome of world history. While governments worry about sophisticated cyber terrorism, a virtual town square is now available to any second-rate hater willing to desecrate what others consider sacred in order to push the buttons that might lead to mass protest.

And it is important to note that within the 24 hour period in which the murder of ambassador Stevens and his staff occurred in Libya, Apple came out with its IPhone 5 version -- "larger, meaner, faster" is how one reporter at the convention described it. On the same day CNN published an article with this headline, "How Smartphones, Tablets Make Us Superhuman."

The article cited Michael Saylor, author of The Mobile Wave and CEO of MicroStrategy. "The Agricultural Revolution took thousands of years to run its course. The Industrial Revolution required a few centuries. The Information Revolution, propelled by mobile technology will likely reshape our world on the order of decades," notes Saylor. "But despite the turbulence ahead, we live at one of the greatest times in history. Software will suffuse the planet, filling in every niche, and exciting opportunities will lie everywhere."

And so, unfortunately, are the risks as the magic wand of history is bestowing incredible power to private citizens, to fruit vendors and hateful wannabe filmmakers. Smartphones and smart tablets can also make average Joe super martyrs, and super villains.

Through the digital world, people can attain real power to speak beyond their own biological and geographical constrains. Erstwhile unknown singers and performers can become famous practically overnight with a well placed YouTube video. And haters can press the right button at the most vulnerable time so that Americans missions would go up in flame.

Nation states are being stunned by the swiftness with the social media change the outcome of world events are struggling to cope. Excited copycats, after all, are waiting in the wing. Why not make a false video showing Japanese killing Chinese fishermen on Dao Yu island as to incite Chinese patriotism? Why not show blurry videos of Pakistani soldiers raping Hindu women in Kashmir as to create riots? And why not film the always guarantee to incite: Burning of sacred religious texts of any major religion? The list is endless.

But to all who want to incite, be warned: Assange is now in virtual house arrest in London, living in a tiny space in the Ecuador's embassy, as he is a wanted man in the U.S. and elsewhere. Bouazizi is, of course, long dead. And this moronic filmmaker hiding somewhere in California no doubt will face lawsuit and arrest as well as death threats. He will learn soon enough: There's a price to high to pay if you want to incite in these global days.

Still this amateur with a camera crew has made his point. No longer do head of states or sophisticated terrorist organizations have the monopoly to press those dangerous buttons. It would seem that those buttons are now available for those who want to spend $199 or, for faster uploads, $399 for the 64 GB version of the latest iPhone.


New America Media editor, Andrew Lam, is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" and "East Eats West: Writing in two Hemispheres." His book of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost, is due out in 2013.