Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Learning from al-Qaeda

Once again it may be time to smash the rose-colored glasses of social software evangelists, or at least subject them to a new refraction is see if the prescription needs changing. The "war on terror" movement still seems to have considerable trouble viewing an organization like al-Qaeda as a loosely distributed organization, which, as Lawrence Wright had observed in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, can be highly sloppy and therefore error-prone. Those who still strive for "zero-level probability of a terrorist attack" also fail to see the extent to which social software platforms are highly conducive to such loose organizational structures. They will not get this insight from the technology evangelists, because those who evangelize tend to spend so much time promoting the "software" that they have little time to think about the "social."

Nevertheless, according to an investigation by Tom Marchbanks for BBC Panorama, that technology that is so conducive to "the way of al-Qaeda" may have now been enlisted in the support of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Here are some of his findings:

Internet ratings company Nielsen claims that Bebo, with its one million Irish users, was the most popular site in Ireland after Google in 2007.

Sectarianism on the site hit the headlines after threatening posts surfaced following the 2006 murder of Catholic school boy Michael McIlveen in Ballymena.

Three years on, and some pages on Bebo brazenly continue to promote violence.

Guns and bombs

One page dedicated to the Real IRA, removed recently, contained a post which claimed a new "cell" had been formed.

While another, promoting the 32 Sovereign Continuity Movement (32CSM), the political wing of the Real IRA, contains pictures of people holding what appears to be a pipe bomb.

One user, calling himself a member of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement, even discusses buying a gun and the bargain price of ammunition.

But the pages are not just used to brag about violence or weaponry. Fundraising events are also promoted.

A page on Bebo recruiting for the Republican Sinn Fein - widely thought to be the political wing of the Continuity IRA (CIRA) - advertises a £5 entry for a fundraiser event alongside a press release from CIRA prisoners.

'Revenge is a dish best served cold'

The sites are not just from the republican side, loyalist pages on Bebo are also widespread, including what appears to be the official internet sites for outlawed terrorist groups, such as the Orange Volunteers.

Although these particular sites have few registered friends and show little sign of activity, other loyalist pages on Bebo which have sprung up in the last six months, use similar names, and are much more active.

As I see it, this is yet another consequence of those who are so wrapped up in technology that they see no need to set aside time for less objective matters, such as the subtleties of governance. As Anthony Lewis pointed out in the title of his book, our own Constitution addresses the question of "freedom for the thought that we hate" in its First Amendment; but the history (or, as Lewis called it, "biography") of the First Amendment makes it clear that our judicial system has always recognized the distinction between hatred in thought and hatred in action. As those actions cross the line into the pathological, we are likely to see an increasing number of court cases and rulings that explicitly address the role of social software in the pathology under question. Such cases are likely to depend heavily on "expert witness" testimony; but I hope that the presiding judges will be astute enough to recognize that any such expert witness in the support technology may be far from an expert on the impact of that technology in the social world!

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