Friday, March 06, 2015

The rise of ISIS and the rise of social media

Grainy camera footage of teenagers sneaking away to Syria to join ISIS. Tweets showing support for beheadings of hostages. "Lone wolf" attacks in New York, Ottawa, London, Paris, and Sydney. A lot of people want to know: What the hell is going on?

In my opinion, the rise of ISIS is not an ordinary tale of a rebel group or youth movement. This the consequences of a society that goes from one dominated by mainstream media and "authorities" (government, academic, community, etc.) to one in which anyone with a message or belief or outlook can transmit it to a sympathetic audience. Malcontents now have a much larger voice, "underground" movements can make a much bigger impact, and people can find information that better fits their beliefs and worldviews. ISIS has been particularly skilled at using these tools.

It's not just terrorists. All kinds of people, groups, and organizations are finding they have ways of connecting with audiences that simply weren't possible in the 20th century. And they are taking advantage of these channels to spread their own ideas and achieve their goals.

What I am starting to see now are large organizations being a lot smarter about harnessing digital media to serve their own ends. To give you one example: My daughter showed me a YouTube video about healthy production methods at McDonald's. It was utter propaganda, but she and her friends watched it and were receptive to the messaging in it.

With the exception of political campaigns and limited efforts to share information with the public via social media, government has been very slow to react to the new information order. However, the seemingly nonstop string of crises amplified by social media has shown officials that responding with press conferences and interviews with professional reporters is not enough. Government not only has to respond to stories involving police brutality, conspiracy theories, government incompetence, twisted/misconstrued photos, scandals, fringe groups using digital and social platforms, but also needs to proactively connect with the public in order to build trust and manage the message and the mood.

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