Others have observed that our generation is the first to carry a device in our pockets capable of accessing the entire depth and breadth of human knowledge, but mostly we use it to watch videos of kittens. This is not always the case, of course. Some of us use it to enrich our character, others less so.
During last week’s World Cup game between the United States and Germany, sports fans invoked Nazi imagery on Twitter 30,209 times. From referring to the players or referees as Nazis to otherwise throwing the term around, the word was tweeted an average of 3.4 times per second throughout the game. At one point, according to a blog that follows these statistics, references to Nazis came 20 times a second.
People say and do things on social media that they would never do without the anonymity it provides. It is not surprising that people looking for an obvious source of ridicule or debasement would focus on the darkest chapter in a country’s history, and one that is well known. Tweeting vicious names is not the worst that soccer fans have done. However, the phenomenal explosion of the use of “Nazi” during a sporting event is troubling in a few ways. From our perspective, accusations of Nazism should be limited to people who behave like Nazis – and that is a very, very small proportion of people in the world today, thankfully. To use this word with flippant nonchalance diminishes its meaning and the history that surrounds it. A worse thought is that people are using it without knowing its meaning and history.
More to the point, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy involved in non-Germans throwing this word at Germans. As a society, Germany has done a great deal to confront the meaning of its Nazi era, to an extent far greater than other countries that collaborated with the Third Reich, for example. The German government has over the decades been exemplary in trying to learn from that history and make a better society, as well as making restitution financially and, as much as such a thing is conceivable, morally to the Jewish people.
More bizarre is the apparent social media wizardry of the murderers that are killing Iraqis in the quest for a Sunni Muslim caliphate. The New York Times reported on Sunday that ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, “has hijacked World Cup hashtags, flooding unsuspecting soccer fans with its propaganda screeds. It has used Facebook as a death threat generator; the text sharing app JustPaste to upload book-length tirades; the app SoundCloud for jihadi music; and YouTube and Twitter for videos to terrify its enemies.” A particularly grisly example was a video of a policeman being beheaded accompanied by the message “This is our ball. It’s made of skin #WorldCup.”
The Times reported that, weeks before ISIS overran the city of Mosul, it had issued on Facebook death threats to every Iraqi journalist who worked there. Understandably, most of the journalists singled out for death fled the city, which the newspaper suggests may have accounted for why the successful launch of ISIS’s brutal campaign took time to filter out to wide global attention.
While most people on Twitter and Facebook are posting pictures of summer barbecues, kids and pets, ISIS is broadcasting a steady stream of decapitations and other executions of Iraqi soldiers, police and disobedient civilians. These extremists hope to impose a Stone Age social order in the Middle East and, presumably, beyond, but they have no qualms about using the most modern technologies to advance their cause.
Site owners like Google and YouTube are trying to confront their responsibilities, but it is technically difficult – as soon as one post/tweet/video is removed, for example, the content pops up elsewhere. As well, there is debate about the merits of blocking all access to the propaganda, and not just from free-speech advocates, but from intelligence agencies, who would prefer the content be left online because it aids them in tracking the extremists.
This is the power of social media. Death threats that have a tangible impact on war zones and which also carry the potential for intelligence gathering. It’s not just for cat videos anymore.