Still an Open Question: What Can Twitter Do About Militancy?

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He researches the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia.

[…] ISIS message calling for people to return to Twitter, because even though Telegram is very useful and is a safe haven for them, nothing is as good as mobilizing, getting your message out very broadly as Twitter. — Alberto M. Fernandez, Vice President of Middle East Media Research Institute, in a hearing before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the United States Senate on July 6, 2016, p. 40.

While terrorist groups in the Middle East have long taken advantage of social networking services from Facebook to Snapchat, Twitter remains unique in that it has enabled these militants to engage with the rest of the world. Like celebrities, journalists, and politicians, terrorists have often turned to Twitter to make their case in the court of public opinion. If the Western world wants to keep terrorist groups from transforming microblogging on Twitter into the long-term outlet for their propaganda, law enforcement agencies will have to integrate social media into their wider strategy for counterterrorism.

Drawing on al-Qaeda’s early success with social media, the Islamic State (ISIS) pioneered the use of Twitter by employing the social networking service to announce campaigns, disseminate propaganda, promote suicide attacks, and recruit fighters from the edges of the Middle East to the heart of the West. For half a decade, Twitter has allowed ISIS to reach target audiences across the globe.

“The past few years have seen social media as an effective tool for facilitating uprisings and enticing dissent in the Middle East,” states one report. “The embrace of social media in the region has made it a battleground for ISIS versus existing regimes, all spreading propaganda, recruiting sympathizers, and undermining rivals. Social media has given terrorists the ability to directly come into contact with their target audience and either spread terror or recruit. In fact, ISIS has been repeatedly described as the most adept terrorist group at using Internet and social media propaganda to recruit new members.”

Much of ISIS’s strength on Twitter has come from supporters outside the territories in the Middle East that the terrorist group once controlled. Pro-ISIS accounts on the social networking service numbered between forty-six thousand and seventy thousand in 2015, a year after the militants captured Mosul. The terrorist group’s reach on Twitter extends even to the United States, where authorities have just arrested a woman who joined a little-known pro-ISIS hacker group, the United Cyber Caliphate.

Tweets, photos, and other visuals from ISIS and ISIS-friendly accounts feature a mixture of slick production and attempts at intimacy and personal connection. (Source: Emerson T. Brooking and P. W. Singer, "War Goes Viral", The Atlantic, November 2016).

Tweets, photos, and other visuals from ISIS and ISIS-friendly accounts feature a mixture of slick production and attempts at intimacy and personal connection. (Source: Emerson T. Brooking and P. W. Singer, “War Goes Viral“, The Atlantic, November 2016).

“This large body of ‘passive supporters’ contributes to the volume of ISIS-related content proliferated on Twitter and appears to be a vital component of the ISIS social media campaign,” noted a report from Carnegie Mellon University. “Some of these passive sympathizers become recruiting targets. ISIS uses small teams of social media users to lavish attention on the potential recruits and move the conversation to more secure online platforms. Thus, while Twitter may not be the place where recruitment ends, growing evidence suggests that identifiable patterns of recruitment begin on Twitter.”

In an attempt to address the challenge presented by ISIS and other terrorist groups, Twitter has responded by banning accounts tied to the militants. In 2017, the social networking service opted to purge almost four hundred thousand terrorist-linked accounts. Twitter has adopted a similar no-holds-barred approach to other users with ulterior motives, such as Iranian and Russian intelligence agencies.

Scholars continue to debate the ultimate effectiveness of suspending pro-ISIS Twitter accounts. “One argument made by some ISIS supporters, as well as some counterterrorism professionals, is that suspending social media users is a futile endeavor because the users will simply create a new account, thus negating the benefit of suspension,” observed a report by J. M. Berger and Heather Perez, experts on counterterrorism. “The fact that suspensions reduce key metrics in the period immediately following suspension is not surprising in itself, but we found that the depressive effects of suspension often continued even after an account returned and was not immediately re-suspended.”

During Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish Armed Forces borrowed a page from ISIS’s playbook, using social media to instill a sense of unopposable force. (Source: Brooking and Singer).

During Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish Armed Forces borrowed a page from ISIS’s playbook, using social media to instill a sense of unopposable force. (Source: Brooking and Singer).

Between 2015 and mid-2018, Twitter removed no less than 1.2 million accounts that expressed support for terrorism, earning praise in some corners for taking a proactive approach to ISIS’s exploitation of social media. However, the social networking service’s attempts to police itself have often raised complex questions about censorship, and some observers worry that the strategy could backfire. “Twitter’s policies hinder sympathizers on the platform, but counter-ISIS practitioners should not overstate the impact of these measures in the broader fight against the organization online,” argued a report by Audrey Alexander, a senior research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “Silencing ISIS adherents on Twitter may produce unwanted side effects that challenge law enforcement’s ability to detect and disrupt threats posed by violent extremists.”

Though Twitter enhances ISIS’s ability to engage with followers and solicit support online, the terrorist group’s use of social media also provides intelligence and law enforcement agencies countless opportunities to target the militants. The FBI surveilled ISIS’s propagandists to track the militants’ reach inside the U.S., and the NSA battled the terrorist group across the Internet. In a notable example, the U.S. Air Force managed to locate an ISIS military base after one of the militants forgot to turn off geotagging before making a post to social media.

“Censorship is not a solution to counter the ISIS threat,” concluded a report by Andrea Ceron, Luigi Curini, and Stefano M. Iacus, professors at the University of Milan. “Quite the contrary, by decreasing expressed support for the terrorist group, censorship can favor radicalization.”

The RAND Corporation proposed that law enforcement agencies could mobilize influential Arab and Western Twitter users against ISIS, an approach that would circumvent concerns about censorship while allowing intelligence agencies to continue monitoring the terrorist group. As ISIS has all but lost control of its so-called caliphate, these debates have fallen by the wayside, but the potential for terrorist groups to exploit social media remains no less concerning. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, and their allies throughout Africa and Asia remain as active as ever.

Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter in particular must arrive at a comprehensive strategy to prevent terrorist groups from taking advantage of social media to plan attacks and recruit followers. Terrorists rely on social media to expand their reach and spread their message. To prevent social media from facilitating militancy in the Middle East and the West, Twitter and its allies in Silicon Valley need to devise an immediate solution to one of counterterrorism and the Internet’s most pressing challenges.

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How do terrorists talk to you?

The video above is from this excellent New York Times’ report: Rukmini Callimachi, “ISIS and the Lonely Young American“, June 27, 2015.

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This entry was posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, Cyberwarfare, English, Terrorism.

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