Sarah Morgan

Healthcare Geek.
Professional Communicator.

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Social Media Vs. Terrorism

I could write a great post explaining how digital communications could thwart an act of terrorism. Between how high our alertness has gotten in the last decade, and how fast and easy transmission is, it’d be a nice fun post to dash off.

But I want to explain how digital communications make terrorism easy.

A recent example, of course, is how BBM helped shape the London riots, making it easy for groups with a smartphone popular in their peer group to communicate rapidly, silently and privately.

And now, two people in Mexico have been arrested for starting a panic on Twitter that’s been called our generation’s War of the Worlds. They tweeted that a school kidnapping was in progress. This spread like wildfire, shutting down overloaded phone lines and causing dozens of accidents as parents rushed to their children.

I saw Lt. Col. Dave Grossman speak a few months ago, and one of his strongest warnings was that kids should never have cell phones in school, because in a crisis, they contact their parents. Wait – wouldn’t you want that? No. Just as in the case above, parents collapse transportation and communication networks and make it impossible for police and emergency personnel to handle any real problem.

Now think about the Utoya shootings in July. Anders Breivik deliberately began his attack with a disruptive panic in the city center, enabling him to move more smoothly to his second and deadlier target.

So just this year, in England we saw communications enabling destruction. In Norway we saw a distraction enabling destruction. And in Mexico we saw how much chaos even a small social media hoax could perpetrate.

I hate predicting something awful, but I see it only as a matter of time until digital media are the distraction, focusing public hysteria on a red herring so an attack can begin or continue unhindered by the police or the military.

Does that mean they’re evil? Of course not. Wired’s London-based Duncan Geere pointed out that Londoners were taking requests on Twitter to check on buildings in riot areas. (He also makes the valid point that TV news can be just as inciting.) Should we shut everything off when trouble starts? That would just stop the good along with the bad.

It comes down to something very basic. Technology is very rarely inherently good or inherently bad. Technology (McLuhan alert) simply amplifies human abilities.

Digital communications allow us to transmit messages faster or further, louder or quieter, bigger or smaller. But what we say is up to us. It can be good (keep us connected, help us help each other) or it can be bad.

The question is, is each of us aware of what we can do, and of what other people can do as well? Only then will we be able to handle a crisis properly and not get caught up in the frenzy.

Updated to add: I drafted this post before the NBC News Twitter feed was hacked and began tweeting false reports of terror attacks. It was rapidly caught and rectified: well done @rozzy @anthonyquintano @jbaiata et al.

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