We’ve seen how social media has shaped the entertainment industry, political conversations, and the workplace. Now we are starting to see it shape the battlefield in places like Iraq, where militants are using it to mobilize and terrorize. The New York Times recently published this article on the highly sophisticated ways in which Sunni militants are using Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to communicate with each other and to send messages to outsiders.
In the past week they’ve hijacked hashtags related to the World Cup events to publicize their agendas, flooding popular hashes with violent images and text. This use of social media introduces a new and troubling dimension to what has been largely a social and entertainment driven phenomena. Sites like Facebook can shut down individuals and groups on their site, but having the leverage and reach to take over a popular hashtag like #WorldCup for the purposes of war actions is something altogether different. As a hashtag, it is public domain and not ‘shutdown-able’ the way a Facebook page is – hashtags become ‘real’ as people use them, and die off as people move on.
When hashtags were first created in 2007, it was an organic phenomena on Twitter that took off with users as an easy way to categorize topics of interest. Hashtags are still just that – organic in nature and by design not easily managed. It remains to be seen how the Twitter-verse or any other byways in the social media landscape will handle this very real invasion into its space. I think this represents a significant shift in how hashtags are understood and the ways in which they are used. Companies that are active in social will want to pay close attention to blowups on hashes they are driving and watch for militant activity as a new threat to the conversations they are trying to have in social spheres.