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Rebutting the Skeptics: Digital Media Is America's Ally

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Over the past year we have seen digital media empower populations around the world in unprecedented ways, but there are skeptics who don't buy into this trend as a force for social good. They view the digital space as a strange environment where bad things happen to good people and where evil people convene to commit heinous acts. While there is an element of truth to this, the digital space is not a parallel universe; it is an expansion of existing societal infrastructure and offers a new set of tools that nurture our civil liberties. The fundamental question we are faced with is not whether there are positive and negative aspects to mixing digital media with foreign policy, but whether the juice is worth the squeeze.

We know that a number of violent extremist organizations are actively looking for creative ways to use digital media. In several instances, including the recent attacks in Mumbai, they were successful. But, they also use charities, NGOs, schools, and other local entities to fundraise, recruit, and plan attacks. Do we reject civil society as a result? Absolutely not. This is what violent extremists do; they latch on to what society creates and exploit it for their own criminal activities. This doesn't mean we stop advancing, it means we outfox them in how we leverage our own creations.

The private sector has every incentive to continue putting information technology on the public domain. It is inevitable that violent extremists will try to use these tools, but we can use them better. We have been at this crossroads before and made the wrong decision. In the 1970s, we didn't want to embrace or leverage the cassette tape for fear that the Soviets would use it to propagate a Communist ideology. Not only did the Soviets use the cassette tape for propaganda, but Ayatollah Khomeini also used it to help bring about the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Today's media environment, however, is interactive and user generated. Different than a one-way cassette tape, digital media comes with rules and regulations that are imposed by companies who will not allow their platforms to be used to kill and to terrorize. Facebook will take down the Al-Qaeda group; Howcast will remove the "how to make a bomb" video.

Learning from history, we must recognize that we have a distinct advantage because the vast majority of digital media users are against violent extremism. The newer platforms are increasingly user generated and conducive to the free flow of information and ideas. While the planners of Mumbai may have used email and text messaging and Al-Qaeda may use chat rooms to recruit, why is it that they can't seem to use a single online social network to build any meaningful group? Even though email helped them orchestrate the attacks, the online community has largely rejected what they have done. For example, the response of the Facebook community has been to create groups with tens of thousands of members condemning what they have done by planning marches and speaking out. The blogosphere and various other digital platforms are booming with anti-violent extremist discourse, and a group of young people have come together using online social networks to plan a global protest against Al-Qaeda and its supporters in mid-March.

But it is not just international security that skeptics highlight. They also raise a concern that the digital space is just another realm for individuals to get in trouble. Don't people get arrested? Haven't individuals been killed for things they have done online? Can't governments just block and shut down anything they want? The answer to all of these questions is "yes, but ...". The Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan was arrested for his outspoken views against his government's treatment of rape victims. In March of this year, a Saudi man living in Riyadh murdered his daughter in an "honor killing" because he caught her talking to a boy on Facebook. And, in Egypt, the leaders of the Shabab 6 April movement were harassed, arrested, and beaten for staging a protest using online social networks.

Do these incidents happen because young people are online, or because they are activists and dissidents pushing back on local laws? In repressive environments, going against laws and "acceptable behavior" can carry serious repercussions. In fact, this is even more the case when one speaks out, challenges rules, or creates a movement without the protection of an IP address, the option to use an anonymous name, and the ability to circumvent the police state apparatus through various digital mechanisms and proxies. Young people can actually take greater and more calculated risks online because there is no office to raid, no staff to arrest, and no paperwork to tear up. Sometimes they will get caught and we know these stories, but it is not because of digital media; it is because they played the odds and lost.

At present, the greatest danger of digital media is that it remains a relatively new phenomenon and its users are learning about the risks as they go. But these young users are learning quickly and as their peers in America are now more reluctant to put questionable photos on their Facebook or MySpace profiles for fear their college applications or job prospects will be affected, so too are youth in more repressive societies taking certain precautions. When they read about a blogger or a social networker getting arrested, they see where they slipped up, learn from their mistakes, and become more agile but they rarely throw in the towel. For example, groups in places like Egypt will use multiple identities on different online social networks, numerous SIM cards, IP address manipulations, and proxies to get around censorship and blockage. When governments like Iran or Syria block websites, users adapt, teach themselves about proxies, and not only find ways to return to the site, but bring with them an entirely new pool of knowledge for circumvention that they disseminate to others.

The benefits of digital media far outweigh the costs. If we reject its utility, we give groups like Al-Qaeda a distinct advantage in an environment with endless possibilities. Foreign policy needs digital media if it is to keep up with an increasingly connected and agile global population.