THE BLOG

Je Suis in Cyberspace, Reluctantly

02/06/2015 01:28 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

The "Us vs. Them" mentality is universal. It's embedded in how we define ourselves as individuals and as communities. For every "Us," there's a "Them." Whether by nation, region, religion, language or religion, it's human nature to differentiate. Fortunately, while the phenomenon is a given, the related actions are not. In a world where limited resources can whither away communities, cultural differences increasingly generate violence. Watching the news today is an exercise in confusion as to which war we're seeing, which era and which players are currently killing each other off with a seemingly endless supply of arms. It's tempting to think that little has changed. Yet, the attack on the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, compels us to re-examine the change that impacts us all: technology.

The ability to share information world wide in real time is growing and will grow more. Unfortunately, the ease of being online has resulted in a fading of the communication skills that real human contact affords. The information exchanged is often over-simplified, biased, and just plain wrong. The good news is that we make up for the lack of nuance with speed and intensity. The bad news is that given the culture-specific nature of communication, the urge to shoot the messenger of an opposing view is played out with the do-or-die intensity of a video game.

The intensified urge to shoot the messenger has meant that journalists are becoming an endangered species. Do an internet search for the phrase, "Death threats against journalists" and you'll find almost eight million results. The situation was dramatically illustrated in the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. The response reasserting freedom of the press with "Je Suis Charlie" was unprecedented. The attack was a global shock, revealing our assumptions that journalists are attacked in isolated or war-torn regions. Surely, they are safe in a modern metropolis, in the heart of Paris.

My own "Je Suis Charlie" experience was several years ago, but it taught me to assume nothing. I know first hand that the militarized version of "Us vs. Them" is not limited to large corporations, major government agencies or financial institutions. Let me preface my story by explaining that I do not write satire, or publish satirical articles as Editor of the American Diversity Report. Humor is culture specific and translates poorly into other languages, and can easily insult various cultures within the forty plus countries where we have readers. I coach my cross-cultural business clients to avoid making jokes in general and satire in particular, if they want to stay in business. I am not like one eager local columnist who asserted, "Je Suis Charlie", and enthusiastically listed her many satirical columns. Rather, I aim for cautiousness and sensitivity, perhaps overly so, and yet...

I can barely remember my reaction when I opened my computer one morning in the fall of 2008 to find that a single screen had wiped out the hundreds of articles on our site. "Admin, your security is owned," it read, and that was the easy part. With blood shot eyes staring menacingly at me, the message threatened Israel, the United States and me, personally. I cannot, will not, repeat the actual heinous language, but it was an attack on me as a Jew, a woman, a writer and culture professional.

Hundreds of articles by our more than five dozen contributors from around the world were gone. The authors included diversity specialists, educators, Human Resources directors, small business owners, executive coaches, civil rights activists, philanthropists, environmental scientists and poets representing multiple cultures. In addition, all of my web master's clients found their sites similarly hacked. I cannot imagine what the small company selling sports equipment, the realtor and the Southern chef thought when they opened their sites that morning. I doubt any of them had familiarity with terrorism, in cyberspace or elsewhere, that prepared them for the experience.

I had a somewhat deja vu response given my previous experience with terrorist threats. In the 1980s, I coordinated interfaith dialogue for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Catholic Archdiocese in Chicago. When the Gulf War broke out, I was put in charge of security. I dutifully studied the evacuation procedures, never expecting to actually implement them. It was mind-numbing when I had to help evacuate the thirty-story building because of a bomb threat to AJC. My physical reaction to the bomb threat and hasty evacuation, coupled with the installation of metal detectors later that day, was stunned, gut wrenching terror.

Despite the fear, I looked for my next job was in Oklahoma, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing. I needed to see how and what had activated on our own soil, the human capacity for terrorism. It was in Oklahoma that the FBI trained me in security procedures, where I went under cover and where I briefed national media on a local Neo-Nazi hot line. I saw first hand how expressions of violent hatred can multiply, amplify and diversify. Whether it was the KKK, Holocaust deniers, gangs, paramilitary groups, skin heads or small cells of extremists, the threats grew and jockeyed for new recruits.

I called my FBI contacts that morning of cyber-terrorism towards the American Diversity Report. At first, I received a sweet, somewhat tired, response about how hacking was very common. When I read aloud the actual message, the response changed to crisp, military-style questioning followed by an abrupt, "Get back to you." The good news when they called back was that they were able to trace the attack to the Iran-Iraq region. The bad news was that the FBI does not pursue international situations.

While I pondered next steps, there was more bad news. My web master requested that I take over his role and rebuild the ADR elsewhere, with his help, but away from his other clients. Reluctantly but resigned, I embarked on a cyber-security, web-design, internet literacy journey. The responsibilities, pace and players involved in my journey increase daily. In the beginning, I felt alone in continuing my efforts to give people a voice, to make a difference. I am beyond grateful to the many people who have reached out to assist me and join me in that journey. Yes, I continue to be afraid, but consider that an intelligent response and have built that fear into my daily routine.

I am concerned for those who are blithely stepping into the internet realm. There is an internet tidal wave of authors, writers, bloggers, publishers and self-declared experts who assert that content is now king. Content has always been king and queen. Perhaps what the experts should say is that the internet is now a no-holds barred battle for content readers, for marketing products/ services and for recruiting.

We tend to look at marketability, not vulnerability, as we compete with the massive numbers of blogs, e-zines and articles coming online. Consider that the same tidal wave that washes this content ashore also increases the number of cyber-terrorists. (I declared the term "hacker" obsolete in 2008). Not only do their numbers multiply, but they surpass the content makers and marketers in cunning and maliciousness. Yes, we all have a problem. It's violent hatred, it's not going away and it's not a video game.