Death by Social Media

Reuters - Stabbing in Israel

Here’s a social media post I’d rather did not exist. According to the ADL, it was posted on Facebook on October 14, 2015 with the Arabic hashtag “Stab.”

Facebook Stab Image

Israel’s UN ambassador, Danny Danon, recently showed a version of this instructional graphic to the UN Security Council with the English-language title, “How to Stab a Jew.” Mr. Danon was making a point – but also describing a form of warfare so new it does not yet have a name.

In Vom Kriege, Carl von Clausewitz’s masterpiece on the psychological and political aspects of war, Clausewitz describes war as “a fascinating trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.” His 18th-century words seem prescient as we find ourselves up against an emotionally violent enemy that has reasonably calculated outcomes and left execution to chance.

This new enemy is not a person, a people, a government or a nation-state. It is an idea. And as Victor Hugo once said, “On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées.” (One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.)

The Pen Is Mightier than the Sword

Propaganda has been used as a strategic weapon since the beginning of organized conflict. We use it still. Information Warfare is the focus of the US military’s Psychological Operations Command (PsyOps) at Ft. Bragg. In January 2015, the United Kingdom got serious about social media warfare. The 77th Brigade was created “to draw together a host of existing and developing capabilities essential to meet the challenges of modern conflict and warfare. It recognises that the actions of others in a modern battlefield can be affected in ways that are not necessarily violent,” said the British Ministry of Defense. President Obama recently signed an executive order to give the US Office of Science and Technology Policy exceptional social media capabilities.

But can these agencies go far enough? In the past, we have known our enemies – where they lived, where they worked, who they were, what they read, what they believed and what we had to do to neutralize the threat they posed. Today we just know what they think.

Self-Organizing Weapons

To understand how to kill an enemy using social media, it would help to understand self-organizing ant colonies or self-organizing robot swarms or even algorithmic art. Most self-organizing systems work by giving a few very simple instructions to completely autonomous entities and letting them act on their own.

The instructions Ambassador Danon describes with his graphic tell me that all I need to accomplish the task at hand is a knife and a Jew. Those are pretty simple instructions. But I also need the four components of death by social media: ideators, propagators, supporters and executors. Ideators will come up with the instructions and post them. Propagators will share, retweet or otherwise propagate the instructions. Supporters will not propagate but will tacitly support the propagators. Executors will carry out the instructions.

Social Media Meme Mutations

In his Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coins the term “meme” as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Memes possess many of the attributes we assign to living things. They are born, they procreate, they mutate and at some point, they die. “How to Stab a Jew” is an awful meme, but it’s out there, it is being propagated, and quite sadly and tragically, it is being executed.

The Instagram Intifada

The names “social terrorism” and “social media warfare” are not quite right. This is a new kind of war against an enemy with very new weapons. Soldiers armed with rifles are fighting side-by-side with civilians armed with smartphones. The result is a synchronized physical and cyber war. The battle is fought, both sides launch a narrative meme, and the most emotionally compelling story wins.

A Social Engineering Arms Race

According to my good friend Col. John Fenzel (Ret.), “We are now in a state of enduring social conflict enabled and empowered by social media.” The recent killings in Israel were not ordered by a military commander, not carried out by troops, not perpetrated by terror cells or operatives. They were socially engineered.

The key performance indicator in this well-executed, hyper-targeted, social media marketing campaign is dead Jews. It’s sickening to think of it this way, but as a strategic advisor who specializes in digital transformation, marketing and data science, I have to call this what it is: a highly successful social engineering hack.

Can It Be Stopped?

In this complex clash of civilizations, evolutionary biology offers a multi-million-year-old lesson on how to stop death by social media: fecundity. The good guys must simply and decisively overwhelm the bad guys with good information. The good information must be programmed better than the bad information, and it must be propagated in overwhelming amounts. We can select the social media world we want to live in and social-engineer our way back to safety.

You have a Facebook and a Twitter account. Ideate, propagate, support or execute resistance to ISIS. It’s certainly in your power to do so.

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



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