Opinion

The Great Debate

Air strikes won’t disrupt Islamic State’s real safe haven: social media

jihad tweet President Barack Obama has pledged to destroy Islamic State and ensure fighters “find no safe haven.” But even as U.S.-led airstrikes are underway in Iraq and Syria, it is clear that bombs alone will not do the job. For Islamic State hides out in the most perfect haven: the World Wide Web.

In June 2014, the militant group that Obama refers to as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, grabbed the world’s attention after it took over much of northern Iraq in roughly four days. Islamic State accomplished this by building a massive, sophisticated virtual network of fighters in addition to those on the ground. Indeed, its expansion online has been as swift as its territorial gains. It is this virtual power grab that will be most difficult to combat.

The Internet has largely sustained the jihadist movement since 9/11. With this powerful tool, jihadists coordinate actions, share information, recruit new members and propagate their ideology.

Until the rise of Islamic State, extremist activity and exchanges online usually took place inside restricted, password-protected jihadist forums. But Islamic State brought online jihadism out of the shadows and into the mainstream, using social media — especially Twitter – to issue rapid updates on its successes to a theoretically unlimited audience.

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of MosulIn the same way that Islamic State’s land grab proved stunning, the group’s actions online have been deeply troubling. Up until a recent crackdown by Twitter, Islamic State’s presence on the site had grown tremendously — from a small one to a well-organized network with dozens of accounts.

For example, Al-Hayat Media Center, the group’s primary Western-aimed media producer and distributor, was using the micro-blogging site to tweet jihadist material, including magazines, Islamic chants, e-books, leadership messages and calls to join the group. It also sent high-definition videos in Arabic, English, Bosnian, German, French, Russian, Indonesian and other languages.

from Jack Shafer:

What do Miley Cyrus, Ricky Gervais and William Shatner have in common? Quitting Twitter.

Singer Miley Cyrus poses backstage after winning Video of the Year for "Wrecking Ball" during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards in Inglewood

Almost as much as celebrities love to tweet, they love to quit Twitter. And as much as they love to quit Twitter, they love to return to the social networking service.

If Nexis can be trusted, the first high-profile Twitter quitter was Miley Cyrus, who very publicly ditched the service in October 2009 at the behest of her boyfriend, actor Liam Hemsworth. Cyrus delineated her reasons for terminating her account in a rap video she uploaded, explaining to her to her 1.1 million followers that she wanted to keep her "private life private."

Proving that returning to Twitter is as easy as quitting, Cyrus started tweeting again in April 2011 and remains a fervent user, even though she threatens to take a hiatus from the service now again. Other celebrities to quit and restart include Ricky Gervais, who left the first time after calling Twitter "pointless" in January 2010. He rejoined in September 2011. Other Twitter quitter yo-yos include John Mayer, serial quitter Alec BaldwinMinnie DriverChris BrownSylvester StalloneNick OffermanCharlie Sheen, baseball player Chris DavisJennifer Love HewittNicki Minaj, and William Shatner.

from Jack Shafer:

The guy who reads crap on the Web so you don’t have to

click777

You know that annoying guy in the office who steps on all of your punch lines? Who deflates with a concise quip the shaggy dog stories you're trying to tell? Well, that buttinski has taken his act to Twitter where, under the username SavedYouAClick, he's razoring the guts out of the often misleading and exploitative click-bait tweets posted by Huffington Post, Vice, Mashable, Cosmopolitan, Business Insider, TMZ, Drudge Report, and others designed to drive you to their stories.

Unlike the guy in your office, SavedYouAClick doesn't annoy, he delights. His interruptions on Twitter are pure public service. His method is simple: grab a publication's tweet that links to one of its stories -- such as this one on Wednesday from BusinessWeek, "How China's government is erasing the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre" -- and then retweet it with an appropriate click-saving comment. How is China erasing the Tiananmen memory? "By pretending it never happened."

Other recent click-busters from the SavedYouAClick stream:

Adjust brightness, contrast, etc. RT @HuffingtonPost: Instagram introduces 10 new features that will take your photos to the next level

Cuba’s uneasy Internet connection

Last week, an Associated Press article, “US Secretly Created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to Stir Unrest,” sparked an uproar. The U.S. Agency for International Development had funded a Cuban version of Twitter called ZunZuneo , the AP reported, that attracted more than 40,000 users before ending in 2012, according to the story.

Commentators have derided the program as boneheaded, dangerously absurd and disrespectful to Cubans. Analysts have discussed its pros and cons. The White House maintains that the program was not “covert.” USAID contests aspects of the AP story.

The article, however, is a propaganda windfall for the Cuban government, which tends to label bloggers critical of it as U.S.-funded mercenaries. Cuba’s media has been having a field day, running gleeful headlines like “ZunZuneo: the Sound of Subversion.”

In Turkey, taking on West wins elections

Is Turkish leader crazy, or crazy like a fox?

Confronted by a series of revelations involving corruption, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan countered by banning Twitter by court order last Friday. He has now moved onto other social media networks — blocking YouTube on Thursday.

Though another court ordered Erdogan’s Twitter ban to be lifted this week, his repressive regime looks intent on lashing out at social media as part of a broad policy aimed at controlling the important municipal elections on Sunday.

This is all part of Erdogan’s calculated effort, as Amnesty International describes, to “silence and smear those speaking out against the government’s crackdown on the protest movement, including doctors, lawyers and journalists.” This crackdown has, not surprisingly, resulted not only in massive protests within Turkey, but exasperation from Turkey’s allies in the West.

Twitter use on the rise in #statecapitals

Twitter’s November initial public offering has been a success for the company’s founders and early investors. This reflects the market’s optimistic view of the company’s profit-making potential. For Twitter has transformed much of daily life — including how we get our news, communicate with others and participate in public discourse. (In fact, many media outlets now factor in what is trending on Twitter when covering news stories.)

Many politicians are now using Twitter to raise their profile. Most notable is the newest senator, Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Despite the fact that he was mayor of Newark, a city known for its high unemployment and high school dropout rates rather than good governance and policy innovation, Booker’s effective use of Twitter (1,446,106 followers) played a key role in making him a national political figure.

Twitter has significantly changed the way politicians get their message out and gauge public opinion. There are staffers at the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee whose job it is to count tweets. (No, really.) In addition to national politics, however, Twitter has transformed the way business is done in state capitals across the country.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Buying into Big Brother

Whatever high crimes and misdemeanors the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden may or may not have perpetrated, he has at least in one regard done us all a favor. He has reminded us that we are all victims of unwarranted and inexcusable invasions of privacy by companies who collect our data as they do business with us.

Some, like Google and Facebook, pose primarily as software companies when their main revenue source, and their main business, is to mine data and sell advertisers access to customers. We knew this already, of course, though it seems many of us would prefer to forget the true nature of the technology firms that have boomed in the last decade. Seduced by their dazzling baubles, we have bought in to Big Brother without truly understanding the true price we are paying and will continue to pay for access to their brave new world.

We may take pity on the idiot schoolboy who uses expletives on Twitter or posts a picture of himself holding a joint at a party only to discover when he looks for a job that a trawl by an HR department has made him unemployable. But even smart people -- like the New York mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner, who sent lewd pictures to strangers -- can remember too late that in this wired world we are all being recorded all the time. Yet there is little legal protection from abuse by the companies who collate our personal data and store it for eternity.

from Paul Smalera:

All your Tumblr are belong to Them

Forget Instagram’s billion-dollar payday. Forget IPOs, past and future, from Facebook, Groupon, LinkedIn and the like. And ignore, please, the online ramblings of attention-hungry venture capitalists and narcissistic Silicon Valley journalists with the off-putting habit of making their inside-baseball sound like the World Series. Their stories, to paraphrase Shakespeare, are tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, but signifying very little about the impact of technology on most of our lives. (Sure, some of their tales are about great fortunes, but those are only for a select few; to summon the Oracle of Omaha rather than the Bard of Avon, only a fool ever equated price with value.) Their one-in-a-million windfalls are just flashes in the pan. Or, actually, they are solitary data points, meaningless when devoid of context.

That context is here. It’s come, in part, because of the cunningly simple social and curatorial tools that media companies like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Pinterest give away to their users. But making sense of our social world is only possible with the the tools and technology behind what we call Big Data. The massive information collections spawned by our digital world are too big to address directly, so smart scientists have used fast computers to carve the data into real knowledge. This is how Big Data is already changing the way the world works.

But Big Data is young; though there are hundreds of accessible data sets already, there are still many more chaotic stores of information its tools can tame. Take, for example, social media: Yesterday, social media API company Gnip announced that it is providing customers with all of Tumblr’s data, what in techspeak is called the firehose. What Gnip and competitors like DataSift are providing to customers are Social Big Data firehoses that can be perfectly filtered into gently babbling brooks lined with digital gold nuggets. When the tech media wonder out loud how social companies will ever make a buck – sifting the gold out of their user-generated content is a huge piece of the puzzle.

Our social-media amnesia

It began with a hashtag — #fitn. On the eve of January’s Republican presidential primary, it seemed that every member of the political press, election observer, and New Hampshirite had adopted #fitn as a sort of quasi-official tag. It was a reference to “First in the Nation,” a long-used political phrase that dates back to the 1920s. As I watched those tweets fly by, it struck me how ubiquitous its shorthand version had become online. Where did the hashtag come from? Who first injected it into the tweet stream? Twitter’s internal search engine, as it turns out, only goes back so far. I fired up Topsy.com, by general consensus the best tweet search tool going today. But I hit the outer limits of Topsy’s archive far before I uncovered my proto-tweet. I asked Twitter HQ. No go. A smallish company, it lacks the resources, they said, to track a hashtag back to its starting point.

My struggle to find the origins of #fitn is not unique. We’re tweeting more than 340 million times a day, conducting a robust public conversation on Twitter. Yet, even on Twitter’s sixth birthday today, we still can’t track it, can’t search it, can’t access our archives. There is no public record. Is that really so much to ask?

Maybe, yes. Consider the technological constraints. Brewster Kahle, who runs the Internet Archive, a non-profit online repository for 150 billion Web pages, told me startups have a hard time being “archive aware.” For them there are more pressing concerns, like integrating servers and avoiding “fail whales.”

from Paul Smalera:

What real Internet censorship looks like

Lately Internet users in the U.S. have been worried about censorship, copyright legalities and data privacy. Between Twitter’s new censorship policy, the global protests over SOPA/PIPA and ACTA and the outrage over Apple’s iOS allowing apps like Path to access the address book without prior approval, these fears have certainly seemed warranted. But we should also remember that Internet users around the world face far more insidious limitations and intrusions on their Internet usage -- practices, in fact, that would horrify the average American.

Sadly, most of the rest of the world has come to accept censorship as a necessary evil. Although I recently argued that Twitter’s censorship policy at least had the benefit of transparency, it’s still an unfortunate cost of doing global business for a company born and bred with the freedoms of the United States, and founded by tech pioneers whose opportunities and creativity stem directly from our Constitution. Yet by the standards of dictatorial regimes, Internet users in countries like China, Syria and Iran should consider themselves lucky if Twitter’s relatively modest censorship program actually keeps those countries’ governments from shutting down the service. As we are seeing around the world, chances are, unfortunately, it won’t.

Consider the freedoms -- or lack thereof -- Internet users have in Iran. Since this past week, some 30 million Iranian users have been without Internet service thanks to that country’s blocking of the SSL protocol, right at the time of its parliamentary elections. SSL is what turns “http” -- the basic way we access the Web -- into “https”, which Gmail, your bank, your credit card company and thousands of other services use to secure data. SSL provides data encryption so that only each end point -- your browser and the Web server you’re logging into -- can decrypt and access the data contained therein.

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