A witch-hunt is defined as “a rigorous campaign to round up or expose dissenters on the pretext of safeguarding the welfare of the public.”
Today, electronic witch-hunts are happening in Israel, Bahrain and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Historically, a witch-hunt refers to the trials in which the crime was related to suspicion of witchcraft or demonic acts. In his book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” Scottish journalist Charles Mackay said that “thousands upon thousands” were killed in witch trials, which had an extremely low standard of evidence and were in many cases initiated as a way of settling scores among neighbors or associates.
The term was widely used during the McCarthyism era or the second red scare when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy spearheaded a campaign to fight possible communism sympathizers.
These days, Israelis who have spoken out against the war on Gaza are being targeted. Tel-Aviv-based Global Voices author Elizabeth Tsurkov tweeted:
Right-wing militia “The Shadow's Lions” asking Israelis to send them photos of traitors [those who oppose the war] http://t.co/w0Nb9MeSmD
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) July 28, 2014
It is also no surprise that Jihadist group ISIS, which has occupied swaths of Iraq around Mosul last month, started an online campaign to identify “apostates.” On a Twitter account claiming to speak for the ISIS, a picture was tweeted of people to be killed because they are apostates:
الدم الدم #حادث_الغدر_في_الشعيطات #الشعيطات #الكشكية #ولاية_الخير #الدوله_الاسلاميه #صور ← بعض المطلوبين (1) ↓↓ pic.twitter.com/DPsVR3QbC9
— الدولة الاسلامية (@AlDawlhislam) July 31, 2014
Vengeance, vengeance! The treason in Shaitat area of Alkhair district [what ISIS calls Dair Alzur of Syria] photograph of some of the wanted (1)
Another account that uses the same logo of ISIS and tweets in its support has published a list of 2,000 “apostates,” calling for them to be killed:
رابط باسماء ٢٠٠٠ عنصر سيتم القصاص منهم باذن الله تعالى #رتويت #الدولة_الإسلامية_في_العراق_والشام http://t.co/07bScRDsJQ
— فلوجة البغدادي (@fallujahRevolu) March 8, 2014
A link with the names of 2,000 people who will be retributed by god willing #Islamic_State_of_Iraq_Sham
In recent days, there has been a swarm of graphic videos coming out of Iraq featuring the beheading of people from minorities considered “apostates” by ISIS.
This modern witch-hunt that takes place in the virtual space has played out on social media before, resulting in the arrest and torture of scores of people in Bahrain. In 2011, the small oil rich island witnessed a popular uprising that was followed by a bloody crackdown. As part of the crackdown, people were asked to name “traitors” and share their photographs. During the witch-hunt, former member of Parliament Mohammed Khalid tweeted to his followers:
أرجو من شرفاء الفاتح نشر صور الخونة الذين ظهروا لنا في الحوار كأنهم حمائم سلام وكانوا بالدوار ذئاب تعوي وتنهش بوطننا..فلن يخدعونا #bahrain
— محمد خالدبوعمار #غزة (@boammar) July 11, 2011
I call on the noble people of Alfatih [a mosque that symbolizes pro-government crowds in Bahrain] to publish the pictures of the traitors who appeared to us as peace doves in the dialogue while they were howling wolves that ravaged on the country..they will not fool us
Many pages started posting pictures of protesters and calling for people to identify them. As a result, scores of people have arrested after their pictures were identified. Even the state TV took part in the campaign.
Explaining the situation, Bahraini MD Jalal Almosawi tweeted:
(معا لكشف الخونه) من لديه صوره لزميله في العمل يرسلها .. اين المروءه يا عرب ؟!!! مزاد الانحطاط الاخلاقي #Bahrain
— Dr Jalal Almosawi (@jmosawi) August 18, 2011
(United to disclose traitors)[A facebook page that was removed after many were identified and arrested via the page] Whoever has a picture of his work mate let him send it..where's your sense of honour? It's an auction for moral decadence
Web pages of “traitors pictures” are still up for people to identify them in Bahrain. No action was taken against those who started, promoted or participated in such campaigns. The electronic witch-hunt has evolved since 2011, spyware is now used to identify Twitter and Instagram users and arrest them.