I’ll never forget the paralyzing fear I experienced after reading Brussels airport had been bombed. I contemplated canceling my travels while my phone buzzed incessantly with texts from my family and friends regarding my safety abroad. Emotional testimonies and Belgium flags quickly dispersed on Facebook and Instagram, completing the latest wave of digital activism in response to terror. Terrorism has existed in some form since the dawn of man, but social media has led to new forms of terror worth investigating. Central Europe provides a useful case study in examining the rise of new kinds of terror and the implications these terror attacks have on communities in social media; revealing a stark reality to that in America.
It is first useful to understand the evolving nature of terrorism. Gone are the days of centrally organized and local groups; namely Hamas, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. Social media has facilitated the rise of terror cells– ordinary people from any location who are recruited to perform acts of terror. Notable examples include the San Bernardino attack, Brussels attack and Paris attacks. These were performed by ordinary citizens within their country who were involved in the ISIS network. ISIS provides a new challenge to the world. Without a central leader, location or network it is nearly impossible to fight. Anyone so inclined can perform an act of terror which may be claimed by ISIS. ISIS is an ideology, and one unfortunately spread easily through social media. As Wired states, “Today the Islamic State is as much a media conglomerate as a fighting force”.
The implications for such a potent brand are extreme Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment seen via social media in the Czech Republic. Chief among a plethora of Islam hate groups is the Bloc Against Islam. The extremely popular Facebook page was recently charged with hate speech, but this did not shake its thousands of followers from attending rallies. According to Radio Free Europe, “The migrant crisis and Paris attacks attracted thousands of people to different rallies in Prague in favor and against refugees, even though the country has seen only a small number of asylum seekers compared to several European nations”. Social media has been a pivotal tool in response to perceived ISIS threats and has led to intense aggression toward Muslims from Czechs. According to Albawaba.com, these internet groups have been so powerful that even in countries such as Lithuania, where Islam is nearly absent, have seen the mass dissemination of Islamophobic attitudes via social media.
In contrast, Americans generally tend to react with more empathy focused on the affected country. According to CBS News, celebrities and others tweeted their support to the victims of Paris and pressed for more media coverage in other affected areas like Beirut. Many wanted to see more media support for the victims of both attacks, rather than aggression toward Islam. However, many find this widespread empathy superficial. According to the Telegraph, the Paris massacre demands an intelligent response and not “social media stupidity”. Author Byrony Gordon argues the development of media hypes around tragedies by way of social media response is incredibly damaging to our culture and does a disservice to those harmed by the attacks. Regardless of its use to society, its clear Americans use social media to focus on victims rather than aggressors. The New York Times reiterates this in a piece finding that the Paris attacks registered in the top twenty stories on social media.
The presence of terrorism on social media has sparked a wide array of reactions worthy of exploration. The changing nature of terrorism is new and time will reveal the implications of social media in both the recruitment and reactions for ISIS.