I walked into the room and looked around. It was large. Each desk had a headset. I walked to the front where the podium was. It was flanked by two huge monitors on either side. It was like a mini United Nations.
I tested the two microphones. The officer who was briefing me pushed a button and the podium surface descended. The mics were on so everything we said was amplified in the room. It was a good sound system. No echo. I looked above me, and there were three translator booths.
The officer said, “we’re loading the slides and video now. If someone asks a question in a different language, pick up this headset and it will be translated for you.”
He showed me how to work the buttons on the side of the podium for the slide presentation. He took out a slim pen-pointer and said, “if you need a laser, you have to push this hard then point.”
I stood at the podium and realized I was too short. I asked, “would you have anything I can stand on so that even for a short while, I’ll be the tallest person in the room?”
He laughed. Leigh Ann Truly (I really love her name: in Tagalog, Ms Truly is Binibining Tapat!) said, “how about this?” and pointed to the little box that led to the stage. The officer picked it up and brought it. I stood on it. Perfect.
This was my own private FGD (focus group discussion) – a way for me to test and get feedback on some of the ideas I’m including in my new book. The audience, I was told, are top and mid-level officers and officials who focus on counterterrorism.
The title of my presentation is the title of my book: FROM BIN LADEN TO FACEBOOK. It is my two worlds coming together – terrorism studies and media – more specifically, social networks and how information and ideas spread through a population to win converts.
I study terrorism because I am fascinated by what motivates people to become terrorists. Why is their cause worth killing innocent civilians? Why would they want to kill themselves?
In the past, officials tried to answer these questions by looking at individual people. Analysts say this man was tortured, abused – but if we look broader, often times, we find that terrorists are ordinary people. They could be anyone.
I went from individual psychology to studies of group dynamics – groupthink – and to networks. I looked at the application of these theories to the networks created by Jemaah Islamiyah and Al-Qaeda. I even applied lessons I learned from running the news organization of ABS-CBN. I focused on the three waves of evolution of the same terror network in Southeast Asia.
They accepted the thesis, were excited and receptive to the ideas in the presentation. An officer from Georgia wanted to focus more specifically on how the Asch experiments can explain radicalism, but another officer from the United States explained that it was only a small part of the experiments focusing on groupthink.
The questions they asked there and in the following seminars were thought-provoking, among them: What is the outlook for mass media in the future? How can we use this from a CT perspective? What do you do when Twitter misinforms and misleads? What is the role of journalists in conflict situations today? How would you rate how governments are using the new technology?
I then asked questions: How many of you are on Facebook? Twitter? How do you use networks in counterterrorism strategies in your countries? What role does media play in your country? How do you think it will change? How has your work changed in the past decade?
After intense discussions, we stepped outside the hall to an amazing view. The Marshall Center is in Garmisch, Germany at the base of its highest point at Zugspitze.
It was an amazing week. Now time to write.