Low-Tech Weapons Vs. High-Tech Targets

Heathrow Airport
Heathrow Airport

Threat Level: Red–London’s Heathrow Airport shut down due to an alleged terrorist plot to blow up 10 planes headed for the United States.

Versions of that story have been all over the media for the past few days.  And, of course, they have been all over the blogosphere. Business as usual, right?  Well … not quite.

Using terror as a technique to effect political change is not a new concept.  It has truly been going on since the beginning of time.  Let us put aside the terrorist’s absolute victory last week and see if it can teach us anything about the future.

One of the most frightening things about the “war on terror” is that it is unwinnable.  We can make it hard for terrorists to attack, but every roadblock we erect, blocks a small amount of our freedoms as well.

According to conventional wisdom, the terrorists (which American news media outlets seem to lump into one category of human being centered in a non-contextual zone somewhere in the Middle East) have taken an ideological conflict that dates back to the 11th Century and passed it down from generation to generation using one-to-one communication techniques.  Until recently, that was all they could do.

It is scary, or terrifying, to think of a group of motivated individuals (driven by faith in a belief system that is antithetical to our survival) with weapons of mass destruction. It is even more terrifying to think about them with a much more powerful weapon–the Internet.

If the physical war on terror is doomed to failure, imagine how difficult it will be to fight the ideological one. From an hour of casual Internet browsing, I have found out how to build chemical explosives out of ordinary household items, how to get past certain security check points and most importantly, how to prepare to meet the creator in my next life. I have no way to check the validity of any of this information (especially about meeting my creator) and it is not in my personal nature to want to do so.  But anyone who was so motivated would have no trouble printing out a “terrorists owner’s manual.”

Smart people can filter all of this stuff out. Sure. But smart people don’t tend to be the target audience. The guy who is writing http://www.threeworldwars.com is obviously a crackpot.  But will his ideas find an audience?  How credible does a news source or a Web site have to look to fill the reader with “faith” or “belief in a certain dogma”?

For years the United States waged a propaganda war using technologies like “Radio Free Europe.”  Originally, it was an anti-cold-war campaign using unblockable radio waves to feed U.S. culture and political ideology to citizens living in the Communist Block Countries.  In fact, today its Web site states that “The mission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is to promote democratic values and institutions by disseminating factual information and ideas.”  Is the next step “Internet Free Iran?”  Will it be a pseudo-mySpace.com in Farsi?  Will our capitalist culture unseat and convert the citizenry to “our” way of thinking?  Probably not.  We (the free people of the Earth) actually don’t have a cohesive marketing message.  Our strengths lie in our diversity.  However, the other side does have a mission –a very specific one–and we (all of us) are the enemy.

This would be disturbing if the conflict were just to remain status quo, but it won’t.  Communications technology, the Internet, blogs, blogmobs, communities of interest, social networks and affinity groups all have a decidedly dark side.  This particular pre-apocalyptic vision of the future is profoundly disturbing.

Will the next big terrorist event be as obvious as the Heathrow bomb threat, or will it be a subtle campaign of information and ideas flowing freely though the ether? Richard Dawkins calls them “memes.”  But I don’t think most of us will truly appreciate the power of information until we see misinformation used as a global weapon. (See Reuters photoshopped pix for an up-close, personal view into the crystal ball.) Shelly Palmer

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit shellypalmer.com.


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