Son of terror victim hopes social media can help curb violence

Printed from:
This undated photo provided by the Lakin family shows, Richard Lakin, a dual Israeli-American citizen originally from Newton, Mass., who died Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, after he was critically wounded in a Palestinian attack on a public bus in Jerusalem two weeks ago had died of his wounds. (Courtesy of the Lakin family via AP)

Richard Lakin (Courtesy of the Lakin family via AP)

Richard Lakin believed in teaching as an act of love. The Massachusetts native studied at Boston University and went on to become an elementary school principal in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

“He really, very clearly connected with kids,” said his son, Micah Lakin Avni. “And that’s what his heart was about — teaching.”

This passion brought Richard Lakin to Israel in the mid-1980s to teach English as a Second Language. The school he managed in Jerusalem brought Jewish, Muslim, and Christian children together to learn English.

His work, however, which truly helped people to co-exist, came too late to save his own life.

On Oct. 13, 2015, two Palestinians in their early 20s boarded a bus in Jerusalem. It was bus number 78; the same one Lakin was riding on his way back from a doctor’s appointment.

“One of them pulled out a gun and started shooting people and shot my father in the head,” Avni said. “The other one pulled out a knife and started stabbing people.”

The terrorist stabbed Lakin in the face and chest. In total, two people were murdered and 20 injured in the attack. Lakin spent his last two weeks on earth unconscious, in an intensive care unit, before dying.

Avni wrestled to comprehend what had happened in the aftermath of his father’s murder. He researched the terrorists and found that one of them, Bahaa Allyan, who had died in the attack, posted his plans on Facebook less than 48 hours before boarding the bus. In it, he stated that he would soon become a martyr and called for others to join him. The terrorists had spent years watching incitement-filled videos, their families revealed after the attack.

The more Avni researched, the more he found that social media has played a key role in terrorist attacks, both inspiring them and publicizing them. Once Avni discovered the role social media played in the terrorist attack that killed his father, he began advocating for principles that would help curb future violence.

The recent spate of violence in Jerusalem and Israel has come from individuals who are inspired by extremist ideology, both online and in person, states Dr. Paul Gill, author of “Lone-Actor Terrorists.”

During a lecture at King’s College London on July 15, 2015 Gill explained:

“Lone actor terrorists face a big dilemma in the buildup to their attack. If people don’t know why they’re doing it, it’s just going to be framed as the actions of a mad man acting out of his own individual psychopathology. They need people to know the cause, so they leak information.”

While Radical Islam is the root of the cause, Avni explained, social media is a huge facilitator to the problem and one that can be immediately addressed.

“No one government can deal with it, because it’s a problem that’s international from the internet, and no specific person can stop this, it’s all over,” Avni stated.

In order to dampen the spread of terrorism, Avni stated that social media companies must first create a definition for incitement to violence and then, for those specifically tied to terrorism, take a zero tolerance stance.

He also encouraged companies to do pro-active moderating and be transparent about the process.

“Today most social media companies have adopted some kind of policy dealing with hate speech, shaming, and all sorts of other very negative things that happened on social media. But that is a policy that is based on reactions, based on when a user sits at home, sees something as unacceptable, and then sends them a note. The problem with this concept is that, first of all, this stuff is in Arabic. And the other, is just that quantitatively there’s so much of it.”

Finally, Avni called for social media companies to work with “governments and law enforcement agencies when it gets to specific threats that need to be dealt with.”

To some extent, companies like Twitter and Facebook have begun to seek ways to address the issue.

In January of this year, Tamara Field’s husband Lloyd, an Army veteran, was killed in Jordan. Shortly thereafter she sued Twitter for having “knowingly permitted the terrorist group ISIS to use its social network as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits.”

Not long after the complaint was filed, Twitter wrote a blog post titled “Combating Violent Extremism,” stating that:

“Since the middle of 2015 alone, we’ve suspended over 125,000 accounts for threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS.”

Twitter additionally stated that they “cooperate with law enforcement entities when appropriate.”

While these measures are needed and admirable, Avni stressed that it is still not enough.

“Big companies won’t react until there is pressure on the ground,” he emphasized. “Writing about this, talking about this, and getting people to discuss it, almost in any form has an impact.”

Sarah Jean Seman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.