Internet and Social Media use by Terrorist Groups

By Jessica Marano, M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

The Internet provides terrorist organizations with access to immense audience world wide, where users have immediate access to propaganda, information, and recent events. The issue arises when terrorist groups, supporters, and sympathizers use social media platforms such as, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and private messaging to conduct terrorist-related activities. For instance, Canadians can become violently radicalized or recruited via the Internet and travel abroad to further the aims of extremist organizations, or return home imbued with knowledge, skills, and experience, and recruit and encourage aspiring extremists to commit domestic attacks. Moreover, via the Internet these individuals can provide funding to terrorist organizations and radicalize other Westerners by disseminating propaganda.

The purpose of using the Internet for terrorist activities is two-fold – it can be used for communicative or instrumental activities. This includes: psychological warfare, data mining, publicity and propaganda, fundraising, recruitment and mobilization, networking, sharing information, and planning and coordinating attacks. Specific cases can help us contextualize the issue of social media use by terrorist. For example, Ahmad Wassem used an Ask. FM account to refer ISIS supporters to online how-to-guides, while Ali Shkri Amin ran a popular pro-Islamic State Twitter account. Another Syrian fighter used a Facebook group to seek out funds for equipment, food, and pharmaceuticals, while other foreign fighters are exploiting the sophistication of Google Earth to target vulnerable areas like military bases. Finally, John McGuire, from Ottawa,  viewed online propaganda videos by Anwar al-Awlaki. He then announced his conversion to Islam on Facebook and Twitter. Once in Syria, he produced sophisticated propaganda videos that echoed al-Awlaki’s themes, where he called upon Canadian Muslims to attack their homeland. These individuals are few of many who exploited social media platforms for communicative and instrumental purposes.

Social media sites connect like-minded individuals together, creates in-group identification, and increases there animosity towards specific issues. The rapidity with which media can be disseminated, coupled with its capacity for extremely targeted messaging and hashtags makes it an ideal place for violent extremists to operate. However, online propaganda is not the sole agent of radicalization, let alone the means by which vulnerable individuals are radicalized. The Internet is a very powerful and effective accelerant that plays a role in the radicalization process, but does not necessarily increase the opportunities for self-radicalization. The Internet is not a substitute for in-person gatherings, but instead complements in-person communications.

To eradicate Internet and social media use by terrorists and its supporters there must be enhanced international cooperation, in conjunction with increased information sharing between domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, and local and national law enforcements. Furthermore, the information should be used used to thwart suspected terrorist plots and identify radicalized individuals, along with pertinent information such as, where they live, who they associate with, and what terrorist activities they have conducted.

Law enforcement should continue working alongside social media corporations to shut down pro-ISIS accounts and posts. However, the problem lies in the global nature of social media and the reliance upon self-policing by users to identify objectionable content. For instance, Facebook has long been a place where users could expect to have content that did not fit the status quo to be removed. This includes profiles, pages, or groups, that support terrorism extremist beliefs and messages. Twitter’s terms of service also condemn the promotion of terrorism and will suspend accounts that engage in the threatening or promotion of terrorist acts. Although, Twitter continues to strongly support freedom of expression and diverse perspectives.

The challenge for sites like Facebook and Twitter goes beyond identifying terrorist accounts, but instead defining and determining what content “promotes terrorism”, in addition to defining key terms such as “graphic content”, and “malicious or violent extremist speech”. These definitions should correspond to the government’s legal language, ensuring the exact material law enforcement deem as “extremism” is removed. Unfortunately, social media corporations do not explicitly define these terms, however content that is considered offensive or disturbing, or gets reported by other users as violating some law will be removed. These corporations must veer away from a blanket policy banning all material that is seen as inciting violence, as this could lead to questions of censorship and freedom of expression. The Internet and social media will continue to be used by terrorist groups, supporters, and sympathizers. It is crucial for the Government to acknowledge this issue and develop a means to successfully reduce and deter this activity, before radicals exclusively use the “dark net” to achieve their terrorist goals, thus, making it even more difficult to police and censor

Instagram and other Social Media Apps” (CC BY 2.0) by  Jason A. Howie 

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Categories: Media and Terrorism

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