Catholics denounce use of hashtags for 'paramilitary warfare'
Reacting to an internet campaign launched by ISIS threatening the life of U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff, Catholic leaders stressed that evil is not the final verdict and encouraged faithful to adhere to Christ.
“We oppose the genocide with the beauty of witness. In front of the superficiality of political leaders we propose actions, petitions, to invoke popular commitment to the chaotic succession of news we are striving to pray for ourselves, for the whole world,” Luca Volonte, president and founder of Catholic organization Novae Terrae, told CNA Aug. 26.
“The world and reality, even the most terrible, changes from our adherence to Christ. This certainty must always accompany us,” he said, “especially in the 'vast sea' of the mass media and social network, above all now that this 'sea' is plagued by terrible corsairs and pirates.”
According to New York-based news agency Vocativ, the hashtag “#StevensHeadInObamasHands” was issued by ISIS over the weekend, and is part of a calculated campaign that was launched in Arabic in an online forum called al-Manbar, where ISIS affiliates often post publications and instructions.
A directive for the campaign appeared Sunday morning at 7 a.m. Eastern time, dictating that it be launched exactly one hour later.
Through the social media initiative ISIS has rallied their supporters on Twitter and Facebook to both create public pressure on president Obama and to instill fear in the American public until their demands are met.
Coming just one week after the chilling video entitled “A Message to America” was posted to YouTube showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley, the campaign follows a threat made to President Obama at the end of the video, stating that “his next move” would decide Sotloff's fate.
“From our point of view as Christians, I think that we have a dual duty,” Volonte observed, explaining that “The first is to inform, to verify the sources with particular attention in these cases.”
“The second, as always for us Christians and Catholics in particular, is to not determine ourselves by evil.”
Volonte went on to emphasize how atrocities such as this campaign, which are “a sign of absolute evil,” can't be “the only news because also thanks to it we must search for the beautiful and true, in this case of the humble and heroic martyrdom of Christians in Iraq.”
“The news, even the most terrible that comes to us and affects us through the internet or social media, should be for us an occasion to propose the good, true and beautiful.”
Kidnapped in Aleppo last year, the 31-year-old Sotloff wrote for several publications, including Time and Foreign Policy. He had been unaccounted for until his appearance in the final seconds of the video portraying Foley's execution last week.
Vocativ reports that in one forum post ISIS provided 13 pre-formulated phrases for their non-English speakers to be published and tweeted using the #StevensHeadInObamasHands hashtag, and offered a variety of images relating to the threat.
Tweets for the campaign are frequently cross-tagged with other popular hashtags so that they pop up in conversations happening in certain demographics, the agency states.
As an example, the agency cited numerous images they saw where the hashtag appeared alongside others relating to this weekend's earthquake in California, as well as others tagged with #AskRicky, which often refers to teen YouTube star Ricky Dillon – who has over 1.6 million YouTube followers and similar numbers on Twitter and Instagram.
Speaking on the jihadist's use of social media to promote their terror campaign, Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Catholic Dignitatis Humanae Institute, prayed for Sotloff's “safe delivery.”
He told CNA Aug. 26 that “Sadly his name currently stands to be associated with the first case of terrorism being waged through the new 'social media.'”
“Not the actual terrorism in itself, but the most insidious part of it: the threat of violence. Hashtags deployed as paramilitary warfare.”
Social media outlets aid the terrorists' agenda “the same way as a dry haystack lends itself to a flame,” he said, due to their immediacy, anonymity and their “potential for instantaneous exponential multiplication of communication.”
“But there is no reason this transmission must all be one way. Those who value liberty can have the resolve to use their 'silent majority' status to be a little less silent.”
The same social media sites being used to promote the gruesome campaign can also be employed “to lobby those in government to affirm their resolve in never appeasing terrorism,” Harnwell said.
“My belief is that even if some dynamics of contemporary terrorism have adapted, the accidentals, if I can put it like that; the underlying substance remains the grubby same, and therefore our response in the face of the threat of violence must be what it has always been. We do not negotiate with terrorists.”
Although it’s not certain what the exact ransom or actions ISIS is asking for in return for sparing Sotloff’s life are, it is thought the group is seeking the suspension of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, as well as the payment of several million dollars and the release of numerous high-profile prisoners.
Alan Holdren and Andrea Gagliarducci contributed to this report.