Sure, Twitter Could Be Used To Promote Genocide

My co-blogger Melissa Clouthier tweeted out an article called The Dark Side of Twittering a Revolution. The alarmism of it intrigued me enough to write about it. From the author, Jamais Cascio,

The emergence of Twitter as a heroic enabling technology for the pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran this past week has been a thrilling reminder of the power of distributed communication tools. I’m impressed at how useful this simple application has been shown to be, and at the clever hacks the Iran-based commentators have employed to stay online. As so many tech pundits have said, this has been a golden moment for social networking technologies.

And, I have to admit, it’s scared the hell out of me.

Not because I have any sympathy for Iran’s government, I should hasten to say, or because I see any threat coming from this particular use of Twitter. It scares me because of how close it aligns with something I noted in my talk at Mobile Monday in Amsterdam earlier this month, an observation that happened almost by accident.

In noting the potential power of social networking tools for organizing mass change, I thought out loud for a moment about what kinds of dangers might emerge. It struck me, as I spoke, that there is a terrible analogy that might be applicable: the use of radio as a way of coordinating bloody attacks on rival ethnic communities during the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s. I asked, out loud, whether Twitter could ever be used to trigger a genocide. The audience was understandably stunned by the question, and after a few seconds someone shouted, “No!” I could only hope that the anonymous reply was right, but I don’t think he was.

Consider, for a moment, what we’re seeing happening in Iran: mass-action coordinated, at least in part, through Twitter; traditional media in Iran having lost any legitimacy for the angry populace, alternative media–like Twitter–increasingly becoming the sole source of information; and a growing sense of persecution and crisis, abetted by the limited streams of rumor-heavy news. Let me again emphasize that I don’t think that what’s happening in Iran is a misuse of social media; what I do think is that the same kinds of dynamics that have allowed for a potential democratic revolution in Iran could emerge just as readily in support of something far darker.

Sure, Twitter or some other social networking website could be used to coordinate genocide. It’s being used to coordinate a revolution in Iran, angry attacks on David Letterman, flash mobs, and to facilitate political campaigns — so why not genocide, too?

Why that should “scare” or “shock” anyone, I’m not sure. Genocide is a horrible thing, but it is also nothing new. It has been happening since the dawn of humankind and it will probably continue to happen until the planet is purged of life by a giant meteor or a massive nuclear war.

To assume that Twitter, or any other social networking tool for that matter, is going to cause a genocide or for that matter, a revolution, is to mistake cause and effect. When enough people commit to a revolution or a genocide, they’ll find the most efficient way to communicate. It might be a social networking website, radio, TV, telephone, carrier pigeons, sign language, books, newspapers — but, they will find a way.

As Cascio noted, radio was used to communicate during the Rwandan genocide. The Palestinians preach genocide against the Israelis via TV. Maybe one day, the Sudanese will Twitter back and forth about which people they’re murdering. If so, the real story will be man’s continuing inhumanity to man, not the medium they’re using to communicate.

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