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Paris attacks show the good, bad and ugly of social media

Two faces of technology came to the surface on Saturday after Friday night’s bloody terrorist attacks in the French capital.

Paris under attack Updated: Nov 15, 2015 17:25 IST
Paris attacks,Islamic State,Social media
In this Saturday Nov. 14, 2015 picture people gather around a peace sign with Eiffel Tower, realized by candles, during a rally for the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris, in Lausanne, Switzerland.(AP Photo)

Two faces of technology came to the surface on Saturday after Friday night’s bloody terrorist attacksin the French capital.

One was the reassuring nature of how Facebook can help anxious relatives and friends of those hit in the attack zone reduce their worries a bit. As tweets and updates poured out on the Internet on the deadly attacks at a stadium, a rock concert and eateries, those logging on to Facebook found its Safety Check feature highly useful. I found my friends in Paris informing all that they were safe, and what they were up to.

We had experienced it in India last April when Nepal’s devastating earthquake resulted in shocks in parts of India, and some of us announced ourselves safe over the Safety Check feature. Though Facebook had launched the facility for natural disasters in October, 2014 and activated it for the first time after the Nepal quake, the Paris attacks were the first time that it stepped beyond natural disasters to a man-made tragedy.

More than 4 million people used the Safety Check tool to tell their friends they were fine, and as many as 360 million got notifications on their friends’ safety, Facebook said. As many as 78 million people joined in conversations or notifications on the attacks.

We can now imagine a future where even the less privileged, with increasing access to digital connections and smartphones, can seek help or offer help.

The “PorteOuverte” (Doors Open) hashtag that was usedon Twitter by Parisians, including Sikh gurudwaras, to offer shelter to panic-stricken terror victims was another facet of the positive side of the Internet and social media.

However, there was a negative side as well. An ugly one. As conversations grew on Twitter about the nature of the terrorist attackers, there were many who stood up to say that these were not rustic guerrillas, but Internet -savvy, often highly educated Islamic militants.

Read:WikiLeaks gets roasted for tweets on Paris attacks

By evening, we could see an Internet statementby the Islamic State brazenly claiming responsibility for the attacks and justifying it in its bizarre idioms.

The use of Facebook and Twitter by propagandists to spread violent ideas and by their colleagues to recruit volunteers is also now part of the Digital Age folklore.

This is the right time to ask some hard questions on how technology can and should be used. Big Data -- the business of using Internet-based data including those on social networks -- to glean a great deal of information through analytics to help public policy and customer relations is now well accepted. But the other side involves law enforcers facing flak if they snoop on people over the Internet. Privacy activists hate this, but after the Paris attacks, there is legitimate reason to worry about the abuse of the Internet by terrorists, just as we worry about paedophiles abusing the Net and social media.

It is time to build a consensus on what is legitimate in big data and social network monitoring. Because abusers seem to use technology faster than champions.

Full coverage:Paris under attack

First Published: Nov 15, 2015 17:24 IST