Social Media and Terrorism

It is no secret that social media has captured our attention, being a powerful tool to express and share ideas. The internet-dependent world has become deeply entranced by the world of social media. Terrorist organizations are aware of the reach and the impact that social media can have and they thoroughly exploit it.

Before the emergence of social media, terrorist groups had to recruit people in person. Physical pamphlets were circulated. However, with the advent of social media, times have become simpler, especially for recruitment. All that the recruiters have to do is lurk in specific chat rooms where they identify potential candidates, initiate a conversation and ultimately bring them over to their side. Rukmini Callimachi, an award-winning New York Times journalist, who tracks Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), follows them on various social media sides like Twitter, Telegram, Instagram and Facebook. She says that this gives her insight into the inner world of jihadists. In her popular podcast ‘Caliphate’ she interviews an ex-ISIS jihadist who was recruited via such chat rooms.

Videos have been crucial tools for the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. ISIS and its supporters had uploaded 1,348 YouTube videos gathering 163,391 views in a span of 4 months in 2018. Videos make for powerful tools of recruitment and propaganda, for, they not only receive more eyes but also for the simple reason visual media has a greater impact on the mind than text media does.

ISIS was initially contained in regions of Iraq and Syria. However, with the widespread use of social media, ISIS has supporters and members all over the world. Terrorist groups in African countries like Morocco or Nigeria are pledging their allegiance to ISIS and using social media tools like YouTube to do so. This year in Morocco, a couple of ISIS sympathizers circulated a video of a beheading of a Scandinavian backpacker that they had carried out.

Terrorist groups employ social media to further their agenda. Bomb-making instructions, instructions on how to carry out attacks are all available on the social media handles of the organizations. For example, in 2017, one Uzbek immigrant was charged with the death of 8 people that he willfully plowed down in a truck. The accused admitted that he was inspired by ISIS propaganda videos and the attack was carried out according to the instructions that ISIS had put out. These instances are part of what is emerging as a trend called self-radicalization where the individuals need not receive guidance or training in person from these terrorist organizations as all instructions to carry out the attacks are made available online by them. Ultimately, the terror groups will claim credit for the attacks.

The scope of social media is vital enough for ISIS to have a media apparatus in its organizational structure. Similarly, LTTE in Sri Lanka had a cell dedicated to propaganda that reached into the web as well. With increasingly self-sustaining terrorist organizations, use of modern tools like social media is not surprising. There is also the presence of the dark web where users are virtually unidentifiable and non-traceable. Terror groups engage in the arms trade, drug trade, plan attacks behind the veil of the dark web and users who venture into this space are susceptible to the same.

Social media sites have been slow on the uptake. In 2015, Twitter declared that it wouldn’t block terrorist on the site or Facebook gave initial reluctance to censor and block terrorist organization accounts. With a lot of governmental pressure, the position has considerably changed with both the tech giants coming down hard on terrorism inspiring or propagating user accounts. They are using human reviewers and artificial intelligence to achieve this goal. Recently many tech companies came together to form a coalition called Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism to implement signature-based blacklisting and share a joint list of image signatures. Under this model, if a moderator were to delete an image from a site, a signature for that image will be generated and uploaded into a joint database which will prevent the image from being uploaded again or in another social media site. This model, however, is largely ineffective as a counter-terrorism mechanism because contents still manage to slip through the cracks because of the sheer volume of data, misjudging of context, etc.

Undoubtedly social media has become a weapon in the hands of terrorists, but it has also emerged as a tool for counter terrorism. In 2017, France and UK announced that they were looking into the possibility of creating a new legal liability for the tech companies for failure to remove such content. Government-Private company cooperation, however, seems the most ideal solution. Improved surveillance, tracking of online footprints of terrorist organizations, intelligence collection are other avenues being explored.The onus lies on a normal user of social media as well. The public can participate in the counter terrorism mechanism by reporting concerning posts or tweets, by not sharing or promoting violent ideologies and by regulating their own contents and presence on social media.

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