Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why Al-Qaeda Can't Compete Online...

During the 1990s, the internet was a haven for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations who were able to flourish due to the anonymity which the Web provided as well as its low-cost methods for information dissemination.

Thankfully, it's not the 90s anymore.

As Daniel Kimmage writes in the New York Times, Al-Qaeda is now way behind the curve. The internet of today (known in "wired" circles as Web 2.0) is based on user-generated content and social-networking. Think of YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, the millions of blogs, and all of the other most popular and used sites on the internet. Their power is based, not on anonymity, but on creating interactive forums for individuals to create and share their own materials. To use Yochai Benkler's terminology, it is a democratic system of non-market social production.

Which is why groups like Al-Qaeda can't compete anymore. To see a powerful demonstration of just how outdated the groups' tactics have become, consider the following:

In late 2006, with YouTube and Facebook growing rapidly, a position paper by a Qaeda-affiliated institute discouraged media jihadists from overly "exuberant" efforts on behalf of the group for fear of diluting its message.

No one paying attention the last few years could believe that such a command-and-control approach is feasible in the Web 2.0 world. Restraining people's voices in cyberspace, and trying to keep people "on message" has indeed become a ridiculous notion in such a democratized forum.

All of which belies an important, if too often overlooked, point - the majority of human beings on Planet Earth believe that these people are, indeed, maniacs! The September 11th attacks may have given Al-Qaeda a disproportionately large platform and sense of importance, but in cyberspace, where millions of individual voices express themselves and create content every day on an equal playing field, those individuals, in the aggregate, ultimately have the effect of drowning out the voices of the terrorists and extremists.

Kimmage is exactly right is stating, "Social networking, the emerging hallmark of Web 2.0, can unite a fragmented silent majority and help it to find its voice in the face of thuggish opponents, whether they are repressive rulers or extremist Islamic movements."

The primary reason why the internet was originally hailed as The Great Democratizer is its unparalleled ability to give the masses real power over information - not only the information they consume, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the information they create. As a result, the loudest voices are no longer the most significant. It's the sheer numbers of voices that are.

It's in this respect that Al-Qaeda can't compete in modern information warfare. In a Web 2.0 cyber space based on user-generated content, the best ideas will naturally rise to the top, while the more extreme will be relegated to the sidelines. And having the better ideas is something that Al-Qaeda will never be able to legitimately claim.


At 2:50 PM, Blogger Terence said...

Great post Rob! I couldn't agree with you more. I think one of the problems with countries that forcefully attempt to control information is that they create a culture of ignorance, and ignorance breeds stereotypes and prejudices. Hopefully people will fight for their freedom to access the world wide web so they can connect to ideas outside of their government approved, spoon-fed beliefs.

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Robert J. Domanski said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Terence. You definitely hit on a theme that I strongly agree with... governments and organizations that do NOT rely on propagating stereotypes and prejudices have nothing to fear from open dialogue and transparency.


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