Digital Media and Freedom of Expression: Experiences, Challenges, Resolutions
May Chidiac1 and Mireille Chidiac El Hajj2*
1Department of Media studies, Faculty of Humanities, Notre Dame University- Louaize, Lebanon
2Department of Management, Faculty of Business and Economics, Lebanese University, Beirut, Lebanon
- *Corresponding Author:
- Mireille Chidiac El Hajj
Department of Management
Faculty of Business and Economics
Lebanese University, Beirut, Lebanon
Tel: (+961) 5 463 624
Received date: February 08, 2019 Accepted date: February 27, 2019 Published date: March 08, 2019
Citation: Chidiac M, Hajj MCE. Digital Media and Freedom of Expression: Experiences, Challenges, Resolutions. Global Media Journal 2019, 17:32.
Visit for more related articles at
Global Media Journal
The advent of the digital media has brought new challenges and opportunities. It has flattened the hierarchies of communication and reshaped the relationship between the authorities and the wider public in society. Access to all sorts of new technologies has made it possible for anyone to engage in public debate. As a result, although it may be perceived differently, threats to freedom of speech are becoming increasingly apparent. Based on interviews with prominent political and social figures, this qualitative study found out that the existing structures of communication are challenging democracy and the human rights. The findings shed the light on some of the tools used by certain malevolent actors whose objective is to silence free media, create a threatening environment for journalists, and use democratic digital platforms for violent behavior and infiltration. Discussions focus on social media threats in a hostile and divided environment. Some strategies and policies are therefore suggested as they can be useful to increase awareness, control and prevent the influence and extent of e-violence while promoting freedom of expression. The spiral of violence is to be remedied by the spiral of Action and non-silence.
Digital media; Freedom of expression; E-violence
The Internet has changed our culture significantly and has found its
way straight to our homes and into our personal lives and everyday
habits. Social media in particular has offered opportunities for
figures such as political candidates, media scholars, business
owners and regular citizens to express their views about any
emerging topic. In other words, social media outlets allow
people’s thoughts to be available to a wide and diverse audience.
However, even though it can constitute for many people a great
opportunity to foster democracy and the freedom of speech; it
can be detrimental when used by forces that long to suppress
opposition or spread their retrograde agendas. Therefore, the
issue of the internet and the rise of advanced technologies are
controversial. Over the past few years, for instance, intolerant
and extremist terrorists are driving all forms of racism in society,
causing terrible harm to a number of families around the world,
be it through hate speech online or online calls for infiltration and
violent campaigns. It comes as no surprise that Isis’s and Daech’s,
for instance, main tool for recruitment was through their online
platforms and e-magazine such as Al Dabiq, in an injurious effort
to recruit both men and women to their global war of beliefs,
which led to negative behaviors.
In this paper, we discuss the dimensions of digital media and
its effects on the freedom of expression. Relying on different interviews, conducted from March 2012 to November 2017,
we explore how far digital media has aided malevolent forces
to attain some of their objectives and how “Modern freedom
of expression” is helping them appropriate new ways to reach
their target audiences and spread their values and beliefs. In
this respect, the research question that guided our search was
the following: What is the role of social media in the process of
violence and extremism?
While discussing the present conditions of the effects of social
media on freedom of expression, this research will also suggests
some recommendations that can be useful for the fight against
The new field of Journalism
The U.S. Department of Defense publication defines terrorism
as "the unlawful use of -- or threatened use of -- force or
violence against individuals or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or
In today’s environment, terrorism, violence and crimes are
facilitated by the use of digital media; as it is a cheap, easy
and faster way to communicate and spread terrorist groups’
ideological thoughts and propaganda . Its online effect can
be considered as the extension of extremist groups’ military
methods  or the equivalent of the off-line effect, as it can
promote identity formation and can help build communities .
Shutting down the criminals’ ability to communicate may seem
the solution to control it. Yet, it should be recognized that
closing them down, would have consequences on the freedom
of expression, as controlling the internet interferes with it. This
issue creates a dilemma, which leads us to define freedom of
expression, as elaborated in article 10 of the European Convention
on Human Rights. It reads:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right
shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart
information and ideas without interference by public authority
and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States
from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema
enterprises…The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with
it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities,
conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and
are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national
security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of
disorder or crime”.
Nevertheless, while some observers see in freedom of speech
the revival of democracy, others find in it a platform to arise
risks and controversies . Nowadays readers are exposed to
different types of blogs and social media platforms including but
not limited to Facebook, twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram, YouTube
and others. They are animated by three philosophical rationales:
search for truth, self-governance, and self-fulfillment, as argued
by Feldman . The author hence suggests that people like to
exchange ideas to identify truth and false issues. Free discussions
of political issues are a prerequisite for democracy. Self-fulfillment
identifies a person’s potential and ambitions. Searching for the
truth is therefore the main objective for journalists. However,
the word “journalism” is changing dramatically. The profession
is shrinking, since everyone, without even being a journalist,
can express his or her ideas on any social media platform in
what is essentially a form of self-expression [6,7]. In addition,
any ordinary citizen journalist can send pictures and videos to
broadcast media, or any other media outlet to be broadcasted
to the world. In this context, extremists do not lack ideas that
can serve their extremism. “One innovation, noted by terrorism
expert JM Berger, was an app designed for Twitter called The
Dawn of Glad Tidings, which allowed Isis to build up huge surges
of re-tweets around particular topics” . To note that new
waves of propaganda had prompted debate about the degree of
the media itself and its role in providing the “oxygen of publicity”
needed by certain groups who exploited the latest technologies
for unprecedented purposes . In parallel, they also prompted
another debate about people’s reaction and the way they perceive medieval propagandas. The question here is whether
the public react or just stay silent.
The spiral of silence in the digital media sphere
Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann  sheds the light on the theory
of “the spiral of silence”. She stressed that the “Cumulation,
ubiquity and consonance of mass communication combine and
produce powerful effects on public opinion” . As a matter of
fact, humans need a sense of fellowship but they fear isolation.
Therefore, they always try to determine whether they belong to
the majority or the minority, when they sense that public opinion
is changing. If they sense that they belong to the majority, they
will speak up their opinions; if not, they will not express it. In
the same context and according to Seitel  attitudes towards
any subject are positive, negative or neutral. Studies confirm
that most people tend to be neutral. They are called the silent
majority. While the theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that
people seek information that supports their points of view and
avoid that which challenges their opinion, most people, especially
the neutral majority, have latitude of acceptance within a range
of opinions concerning any particular issue of public interest. It is
within this range that social media can operate to sway people’s
opinion in order to gain more support of whatever is advocated.
Hence, the objective of the spiral of silence theory is to explain
how the media can influence opinion expression and how
the “spiraling” effect of the majority can silence the minority
opinions, in new digital interactions  and incorporate usergenerated
content into their offer.
In an increasing digital world, people can connect with each
other, no matter who they are or where they are, as smartphone
data allows identifying users’ specific location. The Internet is
allowing people to create new platforms where they can publish
their stories. And here is the problem. The vast quantities of Data
generated by digital platforms contain information and details
about the context of the user. This can be translated for some, as
“a modern freedom of expression”. Yet it reveals users’ behavior,
which can simply mean a “good hunt” in some cases. Predators
are in search for isolated souls. They hunt them and offer them
similar platforms and communities to share their lives with.
Ability to capture their target is becoming easier, as individuals
are poor judges of their own interest  but also because social
media and all technology companies are openly permitting a 24/7
Poor judgment in the face of danger
People do participate in the production of news, of messages
and of information. They “report news, expose wrong doing,
express opinions, mobilize protest, monitor elections, scrutinize
government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of
freedom.” Yet those same people do not always know what is
right for them and do not depend on the entities that have had
countless years of experience in facing security threats. They
just go with the flow, as they are afraid of the “isolation effect”.
Therefore in an extremist world, democracy fighters may use the
Internet to change democratic countries into authoritarian ones. Islamic terrorism1 for instance follows three different steps to
tighten the grip on the neck of young people. The process to
push the young to join their ranks is as follows: Firstly: they use
the Internet as a first tool to radicalize. Secondly, they move on
to face-to-face encounters. They use a method called Dawa to
proselytize and extend their reach beyond borders . Dawa is
their tool to inspire, indoctrinate, recruit, finance and mobilize
the youth; which forms the biggest challenge the United States
faces in combating political Islam. “As agents of Dawa can exploit
the constitutional and legal protections that guarantee American
citizens freedom of religion and freedom of speech— freedoms
that would of course be swept away if the Islamists achieved their
goals” . Thirdly, they establish a spirit of “Us” against “Them”.
Their mentality is therefore incompatible with our freedoms ,
as they seek to replace freedom with “strict Shariaa”.
The first component of Dawa is Tarbiyyah. Its targets are the
educational, political and legal systems of a country. Hiding
their activities through humanitarian aids and NGOs such
as the notorious Holy Land Foundation in Washington DC,
fundamentalist extremists launder millions of dollars to fund their
activities. A corporate example is eBay, the online commercial
platform that was recently condemned for unknowingly aiding in
the funding the Islamic state. Fake eBay transactions were moving
money, according to the Wall Street Journal , through PayPal,
after pretending to sell certain products. By using alternatives
to banks, extremists raised enough terror funds and made huge
sums of money through means of money laundering . The
Wall street journal also reported that “some of the cash was
spent on a laptop, a cellphone, and software to set up a virtual
private network that can mask a user's internet usage, which the
FBI believed was so he could communicate with Isis operatives
All efforts are used by Jihadists, Ikhwan, Isis and others to
disseminate hate against the western ideology, to destroy
the political institutions of the West, and replace them with
extremism and strict sharia’a. To do so, they deploy the Internet
and all its tools to seduce the youth and hunt “Non-believers”.
This brings us back to the fact that digital media, via its vast
reach and inherently democratic and borderless essence is being
accused of being the ultimate tool for extremists to insure the
right networks as a means to facilitate reaching other potential
recruits. By referring to the wassatiyya2, they deploy all efforts in
order to conquer the West not by “The sword or armies, but by
preaching and ideology”.
This qualitative research is largely based on data gathering, supplemented by interviews with people who recognized similar
situations and had to deal with the dark side of networking,
in a way or another. The methodology used in this paper is
concentrated on two different axes. Firstly, a web search allowed
the researchers to ensure that the database was as complete as
possible. Secondly, in depth-interviews, some through panels,
enabled the researchers to get access to large and diverse data.
Baker et al. , referred to the panels that can serve this type of
data collection as “one of the most compelling stories of the last
decade” (p. 175). Those who passed through similar experiences
showed the strong effect of digital media on the society. Interviews
that were recorded during different gatherings, conducted from
March 2012 to November 2017, helped reveal untold stories
and events that took place in the aggressive environment of the
Mediterranean region. They helped exploring how far digital
media has aided some forces to attain their objectives and how
“Modern freedom of expression” is helping those, appropriate
new ways to reach their target audiences.
This section is divided into three main parts: the interviews, the
panel and the so-called free space where chaos reigns, which is
partly related to our web search concerning the tech companies’
impact on spreading and/or restricting extremists’ believes and
ideologies. Interviews were conducted separately with eminent
figures from different countries, while the panel gathered 5
mothers whose sons followed extremist groups.
For the purpose of this study, different interviews from different
panels conducted between March 2012 and November 2017,
were gathered, analyzed and discussed to shed the light on the
effect of the digital media on freedom of expression. These indepth
interviews were the major source of data for this paper,
as they served to describe the discussants’ opinions. Two distinct
approaches were detected, one related to the bright side of the
social media while the other explored its dark side:
When interviewed in 2012, former British ambassador to Lebanon,
Mr. Tom Fletcher stressed that people could use a “super power”
such as social media in political campaigns in Lebanon to discuss
what Lebanon can be or become in the year 2020. While Alec
Ross, former senior advisor for innovation office of secretary of
state Hillary Clinton argued that social media did not instigate the
revolution by itself. He stated that social media tools could be
powerful in an electoral context. He gave the example of former
president of the United States Barack Obama who technically had
less money than his competitor Mitt Romney during the 2012
elections to spend in media campaigns. Yet he masterfully used
specific information about people through social media in order
to have conversations with target audiences.
In controversy, our interview with John Carlin, assistant attorney
general for national security at the Department of Justice of the
United States, revealed that terrorists are using social media to
target young people at a frighteningly alarming rate. 29 years
old Omar Mateen who opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando
was inspired by online jihadi materials to murder apostates and members of the gay community, basically anyone who is
considered to be a Kafir (Kafeer) or unbeliever. Isis is capable
of recruiting hundreds of young men and women from France,
Canada and other nations, he said. Yet it was mostly able to
target Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Libyans who were
either quelled under their respective government suppression
or influenced by numerous mosques calling for the campaigns
for global Jihad. As a result, Isis’s attempt to use social media for
propaganda and recruitment is successful.
It is essential to mention that although Isis is defeated today, it
was growing in terms of number and influence everywhere, but
especially in the Middle East. Although current armed struggles
against them have stripped them of a large swath of their territory
and income, to many, the damage has already been done and
has infiltrated the Internet and global networks of influence.
Their highly visual and professional means of communications
allows them to master content and messaging on social media,
which others have emulated with a high rate of success. Although
many argue that the Jihadi threat- Isis, Al Qaeda and beyond- is
but one of the many facets of fundamentalism appearing on
global scale to quash freedom of speech, as countless online
campaigns of accusations labeled under islamophobia and
racism are undermining the space for real debate and criticism
of extremism under the banner of Islam. This phenomenon is
extremely dangerous and has negative consequences for users
and practitioners of journalism.
In the same context, Benoit Thieulin, Founder and CEO of
Netscouade, in France stated - that two months before the
revolution in Tunisia, hundreds of people started registering on
social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in order
to speak out concerning the political situation and the Ben Ali’s
regime, yet the real revolution was executed in the streets.
Yet when it comes to the gap left by users online, which only
journalists and media professionals can help fill, Ali Jaber, Group
TV Director of MBC, revealed that traditional media does not
provide a platform for everyone to express her/his own views.
Media outlets in the Middle East are not independent. They
follow a previously set agenda by politicians, businessmen
and other influencers. He also stressed that under the guise of
security, social media is passing through a dark phase, because
smart phones used by the people in the Middle east and North
Africa (MENA) are subject to the authorities’ surveillance. Hence,
social media can effectively be used to also topple dissenters and
According to Ghassan Hasbani, Deputy Prime Minister and
Minister of Health of Lebanon, journalism can be practiced either
through traditional media or through social media. What is even
more important, he said, is to provide people with the tools to
judge the accuracy of news pieces and therefore to choose which
journalists, channels or bloggers to trust.
Elias Abu Saab, Former Minister of Education of Lebanon, argued
that sometimes people can create fake news or incite a rumor
then spread it like wildfire through social media and websites. This
would render fact from false news difficult to discern. Moreover,
according to Abou Saab, social media is not journalism.
As witnessed by several incidents involving organizations such
as CNN, New York Times, and the Washington Post, due to the
fast paced revelation of information online, practitioners are not
given the luxury of checking the facts for fear of being overridden
by competition. Yet the more evident incident attributed to this
reality is the Hilary Clinton email scandal and Russia’s alleged
interference in the elections through fake news. This shows
how powerful a tool social media can become in the hands of a
state or governing entity that has the power to manipulate the
masses. Although websites have arisen, such as Project Veritas
founded by New York Times Bestselling author James O’keefe, to
negate fake news, they are essentially considered biased in their
investigations. Hence, the role of newspapers that have stood
the test of time is still a positive force in discerning the fact from
false and are still heavily depended on through traditional print
media or their respective social media platforms. They are the
cushions of concerned citizens. In the MENA region’s case, social
media and their respective daring media outlets are considered
the cushion against fake news propagated by their governments
and online corresponding loyalists.
An interview with Julian Assange, Founder and editor in chief
of Wikileaks, in 2016, revealed that Wikileaks never reveals the
source of its information, which is always factual and accurate.
According to Assange, Wikileaks got it right 100% in all times. It’s
an art to get it right over the last ten years, and they are proud
of this accomplishment. Assange said that his work is noble, as
by increasing transparency, governments can be forced to act in
more accountable ways.
Thus, while people have the ability to participate in upholding
beliefs and values, gathering information and evidence to either
negate or support an event on social media, the role of traditional
journalism cannot be overridden by social media and the people’s
collective power cannot be overrun by online platforms. All is
dependent on the political status of the country and the freedom
of its citizens, not to mention the cultural and social forces, to
express their opinions and beliefs freely and not a logical fallacy
that applies all models to all. It can safely be said that social
media is not the new field of journalism as there are still so many
practices that govern the internet community which intend harm
and manipulation to users, contrary to the mission that numerous
news outlets have successfully proven to have upheld.
Given that the Internet is a rapidly evolving phenomenon, rules
that govern networks are also in constant need of change, which
also contributes to the supposition that social media cannot
form a new field of journalism since the latter is depended on
for the ends and not the means. Thus in relation to social media,
journalism and laws, there are certain inherent attributes that
are considered a breach to the integrity of society.
Another interview that was conducted with Korieh Duodu,
Advocate with Bentsi-Enchill Letsa and Ankomah (Accra, Ghana)
and trustee of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, revealed that
traditional laws require modifications when it comes to the
Internet and the crimes committed online. She argued that the
Internet is a reflection of the society, thus everyone has to think
of the primary issues related to the social behavior and the social interaction; and of the ways that allow organizing the process of
sharing ideas and thoughts.
Alison Bethel Meckenzie, Executive Director International Press
Institute explained and we quote: “When we say the freedom
of speech must be protected, we have to provide freedom for
everyone. We have laws related to hate speech; therefore crimes
of the Internet can be condemned under those laws”.
Converting as many people as possible is their ultimate objective.
The movie “Heaven can wait” shed the light on the effects
of Facebook on the youth. Extremists try to find, exploit and
convince young isolated women, to turn into extremist Islamism.
Succeeding in brainwashing them, they push them to commit
suicide bombing, as they will be heavenly rewarded above all
For the purpose of the study, we gathered in the year 2016, a
number of women from Lebanon and Jordan, of whose sons
joined extremists groups. For privacy reasons, we will keep them
anonymous, and instead will refer to them as case numbers.
Their testimonies depicted the sons’ characteristics, the channel
through which sons contacted mothers, the channel through
which the mothers knew about their children’s death and the
way they reacted.
Table 1 shows the reaction of jihadists’ mothers and how they
reacted to the death of their sons. It is of value to add that these
mothers suffer as they cannot burry their sons. There is no death
certificate. They received the “Bad news” through a Whatsapp or
Table 1: Testimonies of women whose sons joined extremists groups via the social media platforms.
||Movement son followed
||How mothers got the news of sons’ death
||The reaction : How mothers fought back
||Young jihadist in Syria: 18 years old; autist-isolated boy.
||“Call to Islam”. Objective: to do something with his life
||Firstly through Viber messages. Then: messages stopped with no response.
||Through a Facebook private book that posted a photo of him.
||It was through “Sons and Daughters of the world” Network, to share the public of Denmark her personal story and other stories of other parents who experienced same tragedy.
||Young jihadist in Syria: 22 years old. Shifted from Catholicism to Islamic religious practices
||Unknown GSM numbers
||Through whatsapp message
||Young jihadist in Syria: 26 years old. Shifted from Islam to extremist Islamic movement out of poverty
||Through social media
||Young jihadist in Syria Age: 20 years old. Used to be a rapper, enjoying life.
||Islamic group, radical recruiter
||She doesn’t know if he is alive or dead.
||Young jihadist in Syria: 20 years old.
||Joined an Islamic radical group
||Founded the counseling organization “Families for Life” to share personal journey on National and international media platform
Trasher  interpreted this phenomenon, saying that it is already hard and painful enough to learn about someone’s
death, but to learn such information through digital media is
even more harmful. Scrolling through the feed to discover the
death of someone, and causing pain and grief deliberately cannot
be interpreted as freedom of expression.
The free space where chaos reigns
Our web search revealed that “the social media platforms are
offering significant advantages to extremist groups that may
otherwise have stayed marginal in terms of communication
means” . It also revealed that some technology companies,
namely Twitter, Facebook, PayPal and others were accused of
not investing enough resources to stop terrorist and discreet
pages from spreading their beliefs; and that many organizations
and corporations did not attempt to deter extremists that are
under the guise of another identity or mission from using their
platforms, but are doing so willfully.
However, later on and after several urgent calls to drop racist
sites, some of them such as PayPal and Discover Financial Services
(DFS) took action and actively monitored the use of their network
to ensure that their services were not used to promote hate and
racial intolerance. They even stopped extremist organizations
from receiving payments and donations for their activities .
Yet companies like YouTube reverse and undermine efforts by
other organizations when they restrict and ban videos that might
drive a large swath of subscribers to swear off YouTube and start
indignant campaigns against it. Videos such as “What Isis wants”,
presented by Tom Joscely, senior fellow at the foundation for
defense of democracies; ‘why don’t feminists fight for Muslim
women?” prepared Ali Ayaan hirsi; and ‘Radical Islam: the most
dangerous ideology” prepared by Raymond Ibrahim; were banned for fear of inciting public anger. The objective of such
videos was to create awareness and openly discuss the extremism
objectives, yet fear of labels stopped the outspoken critics from
expressing their views. Therefore, it could be said that restricting
these videos restricted the positive face of freedom of speech in
favor of the bad one.
In controversy, the video that exhibited how men can have sex
with female prisoners of war to ‘humiliate’ them was widely
shared on social media and websites rather than being banned.
It brought a lot of revenues and views as it showed how women
were transformed into slaves, even though it is known that rape
and sexual violence are not permitted in Islam . The story
of the yazidi girl Bafreen Oso, an Isis survivor, invited to WOFL3,
revealed that when Isis invaded Iraq, it victimized a huge number
of Assyrians and Yazidis including her and her parents. She was
captured, raped and tortured for two years. She was also forced
to give up her yazidi religion and was brainwashed by militants.
Except for a small number of girls who were able to get away from
the massacres, all others were caged, stubbed, killed, and even
burned for refusing to have sex with Isis fighters. After running
away from her kidnappers, Oso deployed the same strategy used
by her enemy. She accessed social media for precise purposes
and was able to transform its platforms into a tool to speak out
her experience and share it with the global community.
Pictures of the massacres were widely shared on Facebook
and other media outlets. Photos of burned babies on Facebook
showed small infants being eaten alive by the ensuing flames. It
is known that in democratic structures, social media is regarded
as a tool for encouraging 'social participatory governance' .
Preventing e-violence before it happens
This study investigated the effects of digital media on freedom of
expression. Concerned by the demonstrations of the destruction
of democracy and human rights, this paper invites to a deep
thinking on how collecting data from different sources can
help analyzing the ongoing situation in an attempt to find some
remedies. We depicted the following:
The interviewees accused the social media in general from
allowing terror groups to explicitly sustain their presence in
cyberspace, despite their full awareness that the online presence
of the latter constitutes powerful political tools that help them
mobilize recruiting, marketing and propaganda. Hence, it sounds
that the spiral of violence is not to end soon as even though
extremists may seem to be losing land or to be battered on
battlefield; they are still alive, according to Rasmussen’s 
report in the Wall street journal. Meanwhile, in their message of
words and videos, extremist positions are backing up the spiral
of violence and the social transformations, while demolishing
democracy and freedom of expression. And in the same line as
above literature review, predators are in search for isolated souls
while the target is becoming easier.
Traditionally, the newspapers editors’ job was to decide what
should be cut in space or what could make page one. Instead, space does not constitute a scarce resource nowadays, as social
media and all technology companies are openly permitting a
24/7 Networking. The public and especially the youth is shifting
from passive to active agents, creating a new wave of journalists
pretenders, who gather data that best suits them without even
waiting for news organizations to filter and deliver. Therefore,
instead of following the internet society‘s global report 2017,
which argues that: “the future of the internet is inextricably
tied to people’s ability to trust it as a means to improve society,
empower individuals and enable the enjoyment of human rights
and freedoms”; the amount of exposure to any filter of their
choice is presenting an important risk factor for youth’s behavior
that is currently leading to aggressive thoughts and attitudes.
In this line, it can be said that exposing violence on u-tube,
twitter, facebook, skype, blogs and chat rooms has short and long
effects on the viewers, especially the youth, who prefer to leave
their homes, families and parental supervision for the need of a
sense of belonging to a particular group, to a kind of affiliation,
to more freedom to design and mold their place in new special
interest groups of their choice, to make more money and to gain
power. By facilitating more points of contact between people
in a virtual context, friendships, acquaintances and interactions
between people who never met are strengthened; serving the
virtual world to becoming an easy platform that helps spreading
threat against human security and rights.
These people are participating in the production of news, of
messages and of information. They “report news, expose wrong
doing, express opinions, mobilize protest, monitor elections,
scrutinize government, deepen participation, and expand the
horizons of freedom”. Yet those same people do not always know
what is right for them and do not depend on the entities that
have had countless years of experience in facing security threats.
They just go with the flow, as they are afraid of the “isolation
More, in an extremist world, democracy fighters are using the
Internet to change democratic countries into authoritarian ones,
while targeting a global audience anywhere and anytime .
Gathered in the 3rd edition of the Mediterranean Dialogue, Rome
2017, political Leaders admitted that four key “M” pillars govern
the Middle Eastern countries: Money, Military, Media and
Mindset. While one “M” affects the other, Media and Mindset
seem to be the most influencing ones. Russia’s minister of
foreign affairs, Mr. Sergey Lavrov, argued that Isis was defeated
in Syria and Irak; yet it can always make a comeback if it stays
well connected. Saudi minister of foreign affairs, Adel Ben Ahmad
Al Jubeir stressed that there is a need to enhance the ability to
perceive extremism threats whether digital or not, and to support
changes in the Mindset, in response to it. Professor Jeffrey
Sachs, from Columbia University stressed on the importance of
investing in peace and in education in the MENA region. He said
that in a digitizing world, strategies should be integrated and
efforts should be tailored to get rid of wars and violence. Some
strategies and policies should therefore be implemented as they
can be useful to increase awareness, control and prevent the
influence and extent of e-violence while promoting freedom of
expression. This leads us to:
Educating: According to Ali , the only way to remedy the
e-violence is through educating the public through an anti-Dawa
strategy4. This cure would help stop harming peaceful believers.
For it seems, that the open society is allowing more “unlimited
tolerance that will eventually lead to the disappearance of
Controlling and sharing information: Controlling information
must be put in place in governments such as in Syria, Iran, Tunisia,
Egypt and other countries in the MENA region, to identify and
detain dissenters as well as to gain access to their location at all
times. In this context, Wikileaks stated that public information
can hurt citizens and thus selecting information must be revealed
for the good of all.
Spreading awareness through movies and series: In 2017 Ali
Jaber, Group TV Director of MBC, stressed on the importance
of media counter-propaganda to fight "terror" groups. The TV
series such as "Hur al Ayn" (The Maidens of Paradise), "Irhab
Academy" (Terrorist Academy), "Sina'at al mawt" (Death
Industry), “the Black Crows” or “Gharabeeb Soud” forcasted on
MBC and on Arabia, which is part of the MBC group, pointed out
to the challenges and to the threats that shake the course of
communication and politics in general. Despite the terrible truth
about the cruelty used by extremists, the TV series showed ways
to deal with the current problem of Jihadists. The purpose of such
series was not to entertain people, as Ali Jaber argued; but to send
messages through soft communication, telling extremists that
TV series or “musalsals” in Arabic, that are generally produced
in Saudi Arabia, by Muslim producers and Muslim actors, are
calling for moderation and hope in societies. Far from the usual
family entertainment, their objective is to show the cruelty of
those who ‘die for jihad”, and of men who are slaughtering men
in inhuman ways.
Applying new technologies: That can classify the language of extremism to be able to remove its dangerous content while
improving and developing some practical solutions. In this line,
the development of new technologies to automatically detect
terrorist content on any online platforms was announced on
February 13, 2018, with 99.99% accuracy. Developed by the Home
office and ASI Data Science, this new technology helps analyzing
the audio and visual contents released by Daech. However, small
platforms don’t have the same level of resources to develop such
technologies, as mentioned by the UK government5 . Helping
them developing innovative methods can be the desired solution
to prevent spreading fear in our society. Platforms must be aware
of the viral content that is being shared despite any gains from
amassing a large number of viewers.
Uniting Actions and efforts to awaken the silent majority: A task
force should join the civil society groups, the government and the
private sector. In a context of solidarity between all three parties,
seeds of discord in society should be removed to reinforce
propaganda against hatred, grievance and lies; and to awaken
the silent majority. A solid call to the youth is to be administered
to convince them to return to their lives and abandon the fight
against democracy. A new model of shared responsibility and
liability is to be hold at pace and scale to share freedom of speech
and the right for privacy and security; especially between the
West and the Middle- East regions. It is noteworthy to mention
that the PayPal and Discover Financial Services (DFS) moves were
taken after the West was targeted. They immediately followed
the violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the
white nationalist rally. Such moves should also be taken when
threats are perceived in the Middle-Eastern countries.
Setting and implementing Laws: On another level, there is a
need to legislate for further interference with Article 10, of the
European Convention on Human Rights as it includes a limited
number of media but not the plurality of sources of information
that is available nowadays. Laws addressing the challenges that
are met online must be introduced to protect the inherent spirit
of social media and that is freedom of speech. Legal research
must be conducted in order to define the finer points attributed
to criminality, social media, and fundamentalism. It also must
categorize laws for companies and other entities that may be
held responsible for inciting or allowing online criminal activity
under the guise of freedom of speech.
This paper discussed the relationship between digital media and
freedom of expression. The internet allows networking between
people and creates new platforms for everyone to publish
their stories to the global audience. However, participating in
the production and diffusion of information has changed the
ways people understand freedom of expression. According to
the European Commission study , Media technologies and
communications are undergoing a profound transformation;
as new technologies have the power to transform how we
realize the freedom of expression (p.5). Currently, the power to
communicate is not solely in the hands of elites, but rather in the hands of a wider public, including extremists and terrorists.
The explosion of the digital media is serving citizens to engage in
public debate, but it is also allowing them to engage in extremely
dangerous conversations and debate. Did this public observe
silence, as aforementioned by Noelle-Neumann? It seems not, as
he is showing reaction on digital media, by posting and twitting.
Still, actions are not speaking louder than these simple tweets,
and more is to be done. For, if for some, posting is better than
doing nothing; for others, the creation of a unified strategy and
unified mechanisms for social media is essential. New approaches
should be created to confront prevailing consensus. The spiral of
violence is to be remedied by the spiral of Action and non-silence.
1We call them extremists Islamic groups after Moore (2016) who described them as
follows: “In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the threat of
militant Islamic terrorism -- rooted in the Middle East and South Asia -- has taken
center stage. While these extremely violent religious extremists represent a minority
view, their threat is real. As pointed out by RAND's Bruce Hoffman, in 1980 two out
of 64 groups were categorized as largely religious in motivation; in 1995 almost half
of the identified groups, 26 out of 56, were classified as religiously motivated; the
majority of these espoused Islam as their guiding force”.
2According to Ali (2017),Wassatiyya is the strategy to Islamize the West and implement
strict shariaa law through dawa and other nonviolent means. The strategy has been
pursued by Islamic groups in Western countries for the past three decades thanks to
generous funding from Middle Eastern individuals, NGOs, and governments (Saudi
Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and—until recently—the United Arab Emirates) (p. 81)
3WOFL stands for “women on the front line”. It is an annual conference held by the
MCF (May Chidiac Foundation) that hosts influential figures of influential women who
have inspired leadership, change, and sustainability in their respective fields.
4Islamic terrorism follows three different steps to tighten the grip on the neck of young
people. The process to push the young to join their ranks is as follows: firstly, they
use the Internet as a first tool to radicalize. Secondly, they move on to face-to-face
encounters. They use a method they call Dawa to proselytize and extend their reach
beyond borders (Ali, 2017, p.15). Dawa is their tool to inspire, indoctrinate, recruit,
finance and mobilize the youth; which forms the biggest challenge the United States
faces in combating political Islam. “As agents of dawa can exploit the constitutional
and legal protections that guarantee American citizens freedom of religion and
freedom of speech— freedoms that would of course be swept away if the Islamists
achieved their goals “(Ali, 2017, p.19). Thirdly, they establish a spirit of “Us” against
“Them”. Their mentality is therefore incompatible with our freedoms (Ali, 2017, p. 2),
as they seek to replace freedom with “strict Shariaa”. All efforts are used by Jihadists,
Ikhwan, Isis and others to disseminate hate against the western ideology, to destroy
the political institutions of the West, and replace them with extremism and strict
sharia a. To do so, they deploy the Internet, and all its tools to seduce the youth
and hunt “Non-believers”. The first component of Dawa is Tarbiyyah. Its targets are
the educational, political and legal systems of a country. And one way to hide these
efforts is through humanitarian aids and NGOs such as the notorious Holy Land
Foundation in Washington DC that was proven to have laundered millions of dollars to
fund fundamentalist extremists. A corporate example is eBay, the online commercial
platform that was recently condemned for unknowingly aiding in the funding the
Islamic state. Fake eBay transactions were moving money, according to the Wall
Street Journal (2017), through PayPal, after pretending to sell certain products.
By using alternatives to banks, extremists are raising enough terror funds and are
making huge sums of money through means of money laundering (Szoldra, 2017).
The journal also reported that “some of the cash was spent on a laptop, a cellphone,
and software to set up a virtual private network that can mask a user's internet usage,
which the FBI believed was so he could communicate with Isis operatives overseas”.
Therefore, digital media, via its vast reach and inherently democratic and borderless
essence is being accused of being the ultimate tool for extremists to insure the right
networks as a means to facilitate reaching other potential recruits. By referring to the
wassatiyya, they are deploying all efforts in order to conquer the West not by “The
sword or armies, but by preaching and ideology” (Ali, 2017, p.41).
5To refer to Gov.UK: New technology revealed to help fight terrorist content online.
Retrieved from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-technology-revealed-tohelp-
- Hussain MdS (2015) Social media and terrorism: Threats and challenges to the modern era. South Asian survey 22: 136-155.
- Rasmussen SE (2018a) Online Propaganda Builds Islamic State Brand in the Face of Military Losses. The Wall Street Journal.
- Postmes T, Brunsting S (2002) Collective action in the age of the Internet mass communication and online mobilization. Social Science Computer Review 20: 290-301.
- Fisher W (2001) Freedom of expression on the internet.
- Feldman SM (2017) Postmodern Free Expression: A Philosophical Rationale for the Digital Age. Marquette Law Review100: 1123-1192.
- Taylor DG (1982) Pluralistic ignorance and the spiral of silence: A formal analysis. The Public Opinion Quarterly 46: 311-335
- Neuwirth K, Frederick E, Mayo C (2007) The spiral of silence and fear of isolation. Journal of Communication 57: 450-468.
- Burke J (2016) How the changing media is changing terrorism. The Guardian.
- Noelle-Neumann E (1984) The spiral of silence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Severin W, Tankard J (1997) Communication Theories: Origins, methods and uses in the mass media, 4th edition. Pearson new international Edition.
- Seitel F (2014) The practice of public relations. Pearson new international edition.
- Ho SS, Chen VHH, Sim CC (2013) The spiral of silence: examining how cultural predispositions, news attention, and opinion congruency relate to opinion expression. Asian journal of communication 23: 113-134.
- Edward A, Purcell Jr (1973) The Crisis of Democratic Theory 103. In: Harold D (ed.) Lasswell, Psychopathology and Politics.
- Ali AH (2017) The challenge of Dawa. Political Islam as ideology and movement and how to counter it. Standford University: Hoover institution press.
- Maremont M, Stewart C (2017) FBI says ISIS used eBay to send terror cash to US. The Wall Street Journal.
- Szoldra P (2017) ISIS operatives allegedly used eBay to fund terror operations. Business Insider. Military and defense.
- Baker R, Brick JM, Bates NA, Battaglia M, Couper MP, et al. (2013) Summary report of the AAPOR Task Force on non-probability sampling. Journal of Survey Statistics and Methodology pp: 90–143.
- Trasher S (2016) The death of a friend is always hard. What if you find out on Facebook?
- Alava S, Frau-Meigs D, Hassan G (2017) Youth and violent extremism on social media: mapping the research.
- Berr J (2017) PayPal cuts off payments to right-wing extremists.
- Hakim M (2016) The truth about Muslims and sex slavery-according to the Koran, rather than Isis or Islamophobes. The Independent.
- Islam M (2017) Freedom of expression in social media. The Daily star.
- Rasmussen SE (2018b) Battered on battlefield, ISIS alive online. The Wall Street Journal.
- Schils N, Laffineur J (2013) Comprendre et expliquer le rôle des réseaux sociaux dans la formation de l’extrémisme violent. Belgique : université de Gent et université catholique de Louvain, BELSPO.
- Popper K (2013) The Open Society and Its Enemies, the Spell of Plato. United Kingdom: Routledge.
- European Commission (2011) Freedom of expression, Media and digital communications. Key issues.