After multiple requests throughout the past few years, YouTube deleted 50,000 videos of extremist Anwar al-Awlaki who was killed in an American air strike in Yemen in 2011. This is a positive step but it raises many important questions that are difficult to ignore or sweep under the rug.
The first question is why has it taken so long to prohibit the public circulation of these videos? I think a mix of financial and cultural reasons was behind it. The owners of these social media websites, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others, are in the end businessmen who are continuously thinking about profit and loss.
This is why they are weak when it comes to financial interests. Videos featuring extremists are very harmful to societies’ safety but they get very high views either by those who sympathize with their rhetoric or even those who oppose it. Many respectable television channels and news websites refuse to broadcast these videos because they do not want to turn into media platforms for terrorists and extremists.
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Terrorists’ media propaganda is based on the idea that it is okay to insult Baghdadi and Zawahiri as long as their entire speeches are broadcast since this will make them available to anyone and send their messages to teenagers. Media outlets would thus report the main message of the video or the speech while avoiding all its sick ideas.
This is what professional and ethical media outlets do, unlike social media networks which have completely destroyed these standards and allowed people to publish whatever they want whenever they want to.
Although the idea of open space is great and historical for granting man his simple right to express himself as he wants, it also allowed publishing dangerous videos without any deterrents. Terrorists thus became social media stars.
Prohibiting the propagation of extremist ideas is more important because combating violence is like disarming a murdererMamdouh AlMuhaini
Millions of views
Videos of extremists from ISIS, al-Nusra, Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba were viewed millions of times. It is important to note that extremist groups’ focus on reaching youths helped them master the use of modern technologies that suit social media networks.
However, all this would not have happened if social media outlets prevented them from doing do. Why didn’t this happen? It is due to the financial reason I mentioned. Deleting thousands of videos, which have millions of views and the thought of losing a massive number of viewers are what make executives think according to the logic of loss and profit. Therefore they hesitate several times before submitting to continuous demands that will lead to their loss.
It is understandably difficult for them to admit that the number of views and high income are behind this hesitation as this will end their moral cover. This is why they say that their real motive is cultural and related to freedom of speech and expression. This is another point worth discussing.
They separate between extremism and violence although they are as linked as Siamese twins. Their excuse is that the only videos which are prohibited are those that publicly incite murder and physical violence while everything else falls within the context of freedom of speech. The problem, however, is that extremist ideas are what fuel hatred and poison viewers’ minds triggering them to commit massacres.
Violence is not born of emptiness. People do not just wake up and decide to become terrorists killing people or ramming them with a truck. Extremist ideas are what lead to violence. Prohibiting the propagation of these ideas is thus more important because combating violence is like disarming a murderer – he will be unarmed but the intention to kill is still there.
This idea is clear to us but it’s not as clear to western governments where prominent extremists live. These extremists accuse westerners who interview them and who’ve given them nationality and a safe haven. They do so under the banner of human rights and freedom of expression.
Noble motives, catastrophic results
Motives are noble but the results are catastrophic as the ideas, which these extremists have and which are freely circulated, on social media outlets can influence youth who are immersed in a culture that does not criminalize hatred and intolerance.
It is therefore easy to influence them and gain their sympathy or even recruit them. This is what we have learnt from the testimonies of terrorists’ families who narrated their children’s tragic stories.
Their stories all begin the same way: “Our son began to watch videos online and he was greatly influenced by the massacres which Muslims suffered from.” This is the first emotional bait and the rest of the story is well known.
Mixing between violence and extremism and wrapping them with morally sensitive values, like freedom of expression, has led to some sort of intransigence, especially if demands to address them come from Middle Eastern citizens whose concern over these values are doubted. Middle Easterners’ respect of these rights are doubted although terror groups mainly recruit their children, attack their soldiers and harm their stability.
Prohibiting these videos after all this long time is a positive step but it’s not enough. The past few years have taught us that extremists have a long cultural grounding and is perpetuated by communication skills. They are capable of filling the vacuum if it is not filled with speeches that strengthen tolerance, co-existence and compassion.
Children must be taught these values at an early age. This is how we address the culture of hatred, which influenced people’s minds for decades.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Mamdouh AlMuhaini is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya News Channel’s digital platforms. He can be followed on Twitter @malmhuain.