Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The century’s deadliest weapon?

While the Internet has brought enormous benefits, its use must be appropriately controlled if it is not to become a weapon in the hands of unscrupulous individuals or terrorist groups, writes Magda Abdel-Nasser

Everyone must have entered a room at one time or another to find a group of teenagers sitting together in an anti-social vibe, their eyes solely fixated on their smart phone screens, barely speaking a word to one another. In social gatherings, or even behind the closed doors of a family home, you may also find adults enacting this same scene, their attention entirely focused on either a smart phone or an iPad and producing an atmosphere of complete detachment within the domestic environment.

It is undeniable that there are many benefits to social media and today’s remarkably easy access to the Internet. This revolutionary technology has generously contributed to the corporate field, especially by permitting fast communication between corporations at a time when even one minute can make billions of dollars’ worth of difference. Technology has also improved and enhanced media coverage worldwide, and it has assisted in the efforts of researchers in large corporations, universities, and schools across the globe. Not so long ago, it was necessary to labour away on what could seem to be an endless process of library research. Today, with the simple press of a button the whole world of information can be available in the palm of the hand.

However, the new technology is a treacherous tool, and it has too often been misused, leading to worldwide disasters as well as life-threatening situations. There are several aspects to consider in the assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of this newly developed technology.

One of the worst phenomena that the world has had to fight against in the past and still has to fight against today is the growing number of child predators known as pedophiles. In the United States, for example, the FBI discovered several years ago that pedophiles had begun manoeuvring online. An unsuspecting boy would sit alone in his room, unsupervised, chatting on the Internet with a 50-year-old man who was pretending to be the boy’s age. The boy would then innocently disclose personal information about himself and his family. The predator would ask the boy to sneak out of the house on an arranged day to meet and talk, and the boy would later be found either missing or dead after suffering violent sexual abuse.

Such things have happened, and it has never been easier for pedophiles to entrap their victims than it is today because of the new tool of the Internet. When the FBI uncovered this new trend in child exploitation via the Internet, it immediately initiated a programme to counter it, the objective being to crack down on online pedophile networks in order to prevent such predators from using the Internet to draw out their victims. Such programmes are now employed in many countries across the world as a way of countering cyber-crime.

The invention of smart phones was followed by a mass frenzy amongst all age groups across the world, especially among teenagers. With them came the introduction of instant access to the Internet and the creation of social-networking applications. For many people separated by distance, this new form of technology meant that they could communicate with their loved ones on a daily basis. However, from another perspective, these same tools significantly added to child exploitation and aided in the rapidly increasing worldwide problem of illegal human trafficking.

The same tool that had been used by pedophiles to lure their victims was now used by human traffickers. However, happily this tool could also be used to combat such human trafficking and to arrest pedophiles in time to save their victims.

In recent years, the world has faced another horrific misuse of the Internet, with the recruitment of young men and women by terrorist groups being directly linked to social media. The Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, for example, has used social media tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to target young recruits who could be suffering from poverty, ignorance, or experiencing unstable states of mind, making them vulnerable to recruitment. These young people have been purposely selected by IS as targets in order to execute acts of terror, with Egypt and the rest of the Middle East unfortunately having fallen prey to such terrorist attacks.

In Egypt, the government has been combating terrorism that has calculatedly targeted both Christians and Muslims at different times in an attempt to divide Egyptians who have always been united. Fortunately, the wider Egyptian population has played a very important role in preserving such unity. Indeed, Egypt has succeeded in standing up to terrorism, despite the attacks and bombings that have struck the country.

In order to counteract such methods of terrorist recruitment, the world has had to use the same weapon, social media, in order to identify the terrorist groups’ networks on the Internet and to try to prevent terrorist acts before they occur. Unfortunately, this has not always been successful. After the London Bridge terrorist attack in the British capital in June this year, one top executive at Facebook announced that terrorist content on the company’s sites would be monitored and removed in the future. This announcement came after British Prime Minister Theresa May had demanded greater urgency in implementing stricter Internet procedures.

May also emphasised the importance of preventing terrorist groups from reaching large audiences. It was essential that terrorist groups be restricted from recruiting new advocates via social media, she said, as well as from communicating with their recruits by using it.

The magnitude of this new deadly weapon must be properly appreciated. In 2011, the 25 January Revolution erupted in Egypt, beginning on Facebook and continuing on Twitter. This social media weapon resulted in the ousting of former president Hosny Mubarak, and afterwards similar cyber-revolutions spread to other countries in the Middle East. This brought about a new Middle East, meaning that after 2011 the importance of social media cannot be underestimated in the Arab world.

There is a further important factor that should be considered when thinking about the use of smart phones by the younger generation. Children are now exposed to material that their elders may have no knowledge of. Social media has in fact generated a new world order of its own, making the world more and more of a global village. This has come about because of the diminishing gaps between different cultures as a result of the use of the Internet. While this is not necessarily negative in itself, it does raise questions about how far children and young people’s Internet use can be monitored or controlled, especially when they are using smart phones.

 This is a subject that must be addressed and that more people should become aware of. There have been cases, due to the poor judgement of less mature young adults, of cyber-bullying on the Internet, making this, too, a source of great worldwide concern. Regrettably, such cyber-bullying has led in some cases to teenage suicides, drug abuse and depression, and too often girls’ and boys’ reputations have been tarnished by vindictive bullies through social networks and platforms. The only way to reduce such incidents of cyber-bullying is through greater public awareness.

There is also a very important question that we need to ask ourselves. Is it possible to live without social media? If the world cannot survive without this new form of technology, can it be appropriately controlled or will it always have a will of its own? Social media is unlike any other weapon that has been created in that it is unbounded, is very powerful, and can only be restricted with the greatest difficulty.

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