Social Media Growth in Middle East Fuel Democracy–and Terror

Al Qaeda banner Tunisia (Amine Landoulsi / Associated Press)
Amine Landoulsi / Associated Press

Social media technology helped spread the Arab Spring rebellion across the Middle East. Now President Barack Obama wants tech to “make it harder for terrorists to escape from justice.”

According to American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, even before Barack Obama was picking up his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, he was already using the defense budget to dispatch social media trainers to the Middle East.

One result was the Arab Spring, which spread democracy–and radicalism.

The first Obama budget for FY 2010 that cranked up Defense Department “foreign economic aid” by 63%, from $24.3 to $40.2 billion. The spending was loaded with high-tech equipment and consultants focused on spreading social media in the region.

Despite subsequent across-the-board budget cuts and the sequester, defense foreign economic aid rose in each of Obama’s five budgets. At the current $51.3 billion, the foreign economic budget is 108% higher than the last Bush budget.

The most popular way in the Middle East to access social media is through government-provided smartphones. The Obama Administration encouraged Middle East governments to provide smartphones, similar to the free Obamaphones in the U.S.

Publicly available data from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) serve as a good proxy to follow social media activity in the Middle East. UAE smartphone penetration reached 72 percent of the adult population in 2014, up from 40 percent in 2011. This is actually higher than in the U.S., where only 64 percent of American adults owned a smartphone in 2014.

Middle Easterners quickly became connected on social media as the Arab Spring went viral. From virtually zero when President Obama took office in 2009, penetration by the end of 2014 had reached 93 percent for Facebook; 80 percent for Google Plus; 77 percent for YouTube; and 70 percent for Twitter.

With social media ballooning across the Middle East, ISIS became the region’s most sophisticated player social media player. The Islamic State cyber-agents inspired an army of 15,000 foreign fighters to come to Syria with promises of defending Muslims, battling the Syrian regime, and marrying a good Muslim, according to Russia Today.

To fund its Jihad, ISIS became a master of using social media to raise over $100 million on the Internet last year. Islamic State’s top revenue sources to fund its so-called caliphate, other than oil, include making fraudulent student loan applications; selling antiques and artifacts; collecting ransoms; and soliciting charitable donations.

Breitbart News reported that San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik came to the United States on a 90-day fiancé visa that supposedly required a passport, police certificates from her country of residence, and medical examination records.

But the Obama Administration used a high-tech vendor to streamline fiancé visas so they could be completed online for $375 fee. That ended the requirement that applicants visit a foreign U.S. embassy to be photographed and fingerprinted in person.

Facebook took down the account linked to Malik before the press could view the timeline. But Breitbart News reported that it was widely known by family members back in Pakistan that Tashfeen was religiously radicalized during college, and that she immediately began posting extremist messages on Facebook after arriving in the U.S. in 2014.

Now, President Barack Obama is asking social media giants to help defeat terrorism. But Islamic State’s ideologues are already one step ahead–thanks in part to past administration interventions.



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