Jihad Selfies: British Extremists in Syria Love Social Media
After being publicly sacked by al Qaeda leader Aymann al-Zawahiri and accidentally beheadinga fighter from one of their main allies in Syria, it’s fair to say the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)’s PR campaign has suffered in recent weeks. So, like any half decent group of militant extremists, they obviously want to address this slip. Unfortunately, a traditional media outreach is very difficult for them, given ISIS’s policy of kidnapping journalists. So they’ve turned, like many before them, to social media.
Over the past few weeks, foreign fighters from ISIS and their subgroup the Muhajireen Brigade have been busy uploading selfies across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, in an effort to publicize their cause and win more recruits to the Syrian jihad. They offer a bizarre and fascinating look inside Syria’s most feared and least understood militant groups.
On paper, the Muhajireen Brigade are separate to ISIS, but they’re considered by some analysts to be a front group for the larger jihadist outfit. The social media evidence seems to support this view.
This picture (above) shows British fighter Ibrahim al-Mazwagi in battle with Omar Shishani, a Georgian Chechen who formerly led the Muhajireen Brigade, and is now ISIS’s military commander in Northern Syria.
Al-Mazwagi was killed in battle in February, aged 21. This is a collage made to honor him as a martyr, along with his friend and fellow casualty, Abu Qudama.
Above are two other recent British martyrs, Choukri Ellekhlifi, 22, and Mohammed el-Araj, 23. The pair are shown here at a jihadist internet café in Atmeh, a Syrian border town that is now firmly under ISIS control.
Look through your Facebook feed and chances are you’ll find a bunch of half-truths, conspiracies, and chain letter–quality hoaxes sharing space with links to reputable news stories. In the past month, I’ve come across links to an article about Chinese people eating soup made of human fetus (a retread of an old racist rumor), a story about how former Liberian president Charles Taylor was a CIA agent (this one was actually reported by the Boston Globe, but later pretty much completely retracted), and a tale of a lesbian ex-Marine waitress who got stiffed on a tip by a homophobic couple (the couple now claims they gave her an ample tip; it’s not clear who is lying or what is going on).
With the exception of that last story, it would have been pretty easy for the sharers to do a quick Google search and determine that the OMG or WTF item they were about to post was outdated or untrue. The whole point of the internet is that you have pretty much the sum total of human knowledge sitting at your fingertips! It takes TWO SECONDS to research the thing you are thinking about sharing and find out that the Daily Currant is a shitty satire site, or that there is no“Abortionplex,” or that those “legal notices” your friends are posting on Facebook don’t do anything—yet even journalists and others who should know better fall for this crap.
Mexican Drug Cartels Love Social Media
Members of Mexico’s drug cartels are really starting to harness the power of the internet, using it to run positive PR campaigns, post selfies with their pistols, and hunt down targets by tracking their movements on social media.
Antoine Nouvet from the SecDev Foundation, a Canadian research organization, has been working with drug policy think-tank the Igarapé Institute on a project called the Open Empowerment Initiative. The project looks into “how cyberspace is empowering individuals and rewiring relations in Latin America” and has uncovered a wealth of information about how cartels are using the internet to their own nefarious ends.
The first point Antoine touched on was how cartels have utilized cyberspace in much the same way as a TV company’s PR department might: “They advertise their activities, they conduct public relations initiatives, and they have basically turned themselves into their own media company,” he explained. “Colombia’s cartel groups or drug traffickers in Myanmar in the 1990s were very sophisticated at public relations, but they didn’t have this massive broadcasting platform.”
Is Vahid Brown an Agent of the State, or Are Portland Anarchists on a Witch Hunt?
A link was posted on my Facebook wall a few weeks back warning that a man I knew from Reed College was “an agent of the state.”
"Vahid Brown was or is an FBI instructor at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, who has recently been attempting to integrate himself into radical and activist scenes in Portland," according to the dossier posted on the website of the Committee Against Political Repression, an anarchist group in Portland, Oregon. As such, he is “a threat and should not be tolerated.”
Brown, however, has never worked for the FBI. He taught classes on political Islam to FBI agents at West Point while he was a scholar at the university’s Combating Terrorism Center think tank.
The post has gone viral amongst radical leftists, and has been shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook. In Portland, this amounts to a lot of people. Brown is now “anxious in public space because of this hostility,” he told me recently when I spoke to him in a series of Facebook messages, and then by phone.
A photo of Brown appears at the top of the post. In Portland, his beard and stylish attire fit in. For the Committee, this is a warning sign: “An agent of the state who has the same subcultural interests as you is still an agent of the state.”
Brown is a scholar of Islam, the author of Cracks in the Foundation: Leadership Schisms in al-Qa’ida from 1989-2006, which argues that the Iraq War “created a market for [the group’s] message.”
"I was not training law enforcement on how to do law enforcement," Brown said. "I was trying to educate these folks about these issues and directly address misconceptions and simplistic nonsense about ‘dangerous Muslims.’"
Phones Are Better Than People
You’ve likely already seen I Forgot My Phone, the short film by Charlene deGuzman that dramatizes our dependence on smartphones. It’s pulled in almost 20 million views and counting thanks to that magic social-media formula of saying something everyone pretty much agrees with: we’re all hopelessly and pathetically addicted to our devices, which makes us tragically unaware of the fragile beauty of real-life moments passing us by on gossamer butterfly wings of authenticity.
The message at the heart of the film is yet another argument that technology erodes our genuine relationships and makes us stupider and less empathetic. You’ve likely heard a variation of this before—cell phones, or the internet, or computers, or television, are making things worse. As usual, it’s wrong.
Granted, smartphone abuse is a real thing—according to one study, 72 percent of Americans said they’re within five feet of their mobile devices at all times, and 9 percent said they used their phone during sex. In another survey, 51 percent of UK residents said they experience “extreme tech anxiety” when they’re separated from their phones. And common activities like texting or using social media trigger our brains’ dopamine and opioid receptors in much the same way narcotics do, meaning you can really be “addicted” to Facebook. But while it’s certainly reasonable to argue that we should draw the line somewhere—tweeting while driving is clearly dangerous, for instance—it’s not clear where that line should be.
Consider some familiar scenarios, some of which crop up in deGuzman’s film: you’re at a concert, or a restaurant, or a sporting event, and you take your phone out to take a photo or a video or send out a Tweet or Facebook status. OH NO YOU ARE MISSING OUT ON THE WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE OF BEING WITH OTHER HUMANS!
Yeah, right—have you met most people? They’re boring as shit. More likely, you are avoiding an awkward or boring conversation by checking your phone, or you’re communicating with those you’d actually like to talk to. Before smartphones, people dealt with these situations by drinking too much, pretending to be interested in someone, or just staring at the clock until the party was over. We’re not missing much if we duck into our phones instead.
Members of a Christian Group Are Being Assholes Again
A Christian group in Texas has begun taking photos of people’s cars as they patronize “sinful businesses” and posting them online.
In a “news alert” posted to their Facebook page, Texas Christian group Repent Amarillo announced they would be photographing vehicles that patronize strip clubs, porn shops, and gay bars and then posting the images to their page. “Think of it as God’s public sex offender list,” the post reads, adding, “so, if you want to know if your friends, husbands, boyfriends, co-workers, or family members are visiting these places then STAY TUNED!”
They’re calling it the “Ephesians 5:11 Project” after a Bible passage which reads, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”
It’s the brainchild of Pastor David Grisham, who you may remember as the guy who tried (and failed) to burn a Qur’an a couple of years ago, leading to the creation of the “Dude, You Have No Quran" song.
The Facebook Comments That Rob Ford Doesn’t Want You to See
Above: A crack pipe word cloud, because, why not?
The comments on the Facebook page of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford are, on the whole, positive and congratulatory. Even in the wake of the ever-evolving ‘Crackgate’ scandal, Fordites have been posting a plethora of supportive comments to the Mayor’s wall:
“Rob. Hang on. you are doing the best job. We love you…Burden is on star to provide proof. There was no video released, so it does not exist. Not even short ten seconds teaser trailer. as to create attention. all this screams from pinkos are unsubstantinated. They have no video, you do not need to explain any further.”
“Mr ford I just want to say I have alot of respect for you and your visions for this great city of ours. Keep up the good work and remember there are alot of people rooting for you.”
It shouldn’t come as any surprise to you that the comments on the mayor’s Facebook page are heavily monitored and screened. For any high-profile politician, online comments are like town hall forums: they appear spontaneous but are actually highly choreographed. In the case of Ford’s Facebook page, negative comments are systematically cleansed from the mayor’s wall.
This practice came to my attention last week when Gawker first broke the Crackgate story. As the controversy reverberated throughout the digital space, I wanted to gauge Torontonians’ reactions. And what better place to share your support or dismay for your elected official than his public Facebook page? I noted a couple of particularly disparaging remarks about Mr. Ford and mentioned them to a friend in passing a couple of hours later.
When they tried to look them up, they’d already been deleted.
Facebook and Censorship’s Slippery Slope
The First Amendment is great, huh? It gives people the right to (mostly) say whatever they like, because the lawyers and landholders who wrote the Constitution recognized that democracy requires people to debate and share opinions without worrying about reprisals or censorship from the government. The cost of this is that you have to allow people to hold racist protests and draw pictures of animals with human sex parts and so on, but allowing people to hold and share beliefs that most people find abhorrent or stupid is how we know we are free. Ayn Rand once said, by way of defending pornography, “Every infringement of human rights has begun with a suppression of a given right’s least attractive practitioners.” We should be free to write and say whatever we want, even if we’re pornographers, racists, or fans of Ayn Rand’s books.
We don’t have those same rights on Facebook, however.
Facebook isn’t just a cool place for you to hang out and chat with your buddies and share hot new content you found surfing the World Wide Web. It’s a platform owned by a massive corporation that makes money off of advertising and can do pretty much whatever it likes with the stuff you post on it. Which isn’t to say Facebook is evil, exactly, but it’s not your friend, and it’s not under any legal obligation to protect speech or use its site to say whatever you like. Zuckerberg and company get to decide what is and is not permissible on their property, and since they own the internet’s second-most-popular site, that gives them a lot of power.
In practice, Facebook uses this power to make itself as advertiser-friendly as possible. This means they suspend users for posting NSFW content and remove photos of “offensive” body parts like dicks and female nipples. They’ve also taken down aggressively racist content and videos of extreme violence. The arguments for banning these kinds of content are simple—Facebook is used by children and millions of users who are offended by that nasty stuff, and the website is supposed to be a place that “helps you connect and share with the people in your life,” not a free-for-all where hate groups can organize and broadcast their poison.