On an overcast afternoon in London in May 2013, an off-duty soldier named Lee Rigby was murdered near his barracks in Woolwich, southeast London. Rigby’s killers were two young British men of Nigerian descent, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. What people didn’t know at the time is that six months earlier Adebowale had talked on Facebook about his desire to slaughter a soldier.
The authors of the official report into the killing chastised Facebook for not picking up on the threat, arguing there was a “significant possibility” that the attack could have been prevented if the technology company had alerted the authorities. Politicians turned on social networks for not doing enough to stop extremists, accusing Facebook and the like of providing a safe haven for terrorists and of not living up to their social responsibility.
It’s too easy to use social networks as scapegoats, especially when it distracts attention from the failings of the security services – who had previously had Adebolajo under surveillance. Extremists have always used whatever technology they could to get their message out, from printed propaganda to broadcasting over the airwaves. The smartphone is today’s printing press, and social media a ready-made distribution network.