Terrorism and social media
Due to the convenience, affordability, and broad reach of social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, terrorist groups have increasingly used social media to further their goals and spread their message. Attempts have been made by various governments and agencies to thwart the use of social media by terrorist organizations.
Many authors have proposed that media attention increases perceptions of risk of fear of terrorism and crime and relates to how much attention the person pays to the news. The relationship between terrorism and the media has long been noted. Terrorist organizations depend on the open media systems of democratic countries to further their message and goals.In order to garner publicity towards their cause, terrorist organizations resort to acts of violence and aggression that deliberately target civilians. This method has proven to be effective in gathering attention:
It cannot be denied that although terrorism has proved remarkably ineffective as the major weapon for taking down governments and capturing political power, it has been a remarkably successful means of publicizing a political cause and relaying the terrorist threat to a wider audience, particularly in the open and pluralistic countries of the West. When one says 'terrorism' in a democratic society, one also says 'media'.
While a media organization may not support the goals of terrorist organizations, it is their job to report current events and issues. In the fiercely competitive media environment, when a terrorist attack occurs, media outlets scramble to cover the event. In doing so the media help to further the message of terrorist organizations:
To summarise briefly on the symbiotic nature of the relationship between terrorists and the media, the recent history of terrorism in many democratic countries vividly demonstrates that terrorists do thrive on the oxygen of publicity, and it is foolish to deny this. This does not mean that the established democratic media share the values of the terrorists. It does demonstrate, however, that the free media in an open society are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation by ruthless terrorist organisations.
One notable example of the relationship between terror groups and the media was the release of the Osama bin Laden audio and video recordings. These tapes were sent directly to mainstream Arabic television networks including Al-Jazeera.
Media can often be the source of discontent for terrorist groups. Irene Kahn says,
New seeds of social discord and insecurity are sprouting between citizens and noncitizens. Racism and xenophobia are latent in all societies, but in some European countries they feature blatantly as some politicians exploit people's fears and prejudices for short-term electoral gains. Some aspects of the media have played into this strategy, dehumanizing and demonizing foreigners, foreign-born citizens, refugees, and asylum seekers. They are pointed out as a source of danger and become an easy target for hate speech and violence. Those who need their rights protected the most have become the ones most at risk of attacks.
Most terrorist groups use social media as a means to bypass the traditional media and spread their propaganda.
Michel Foucault's theory of surveillance, panopticism, describes a networks of power, where all parties are transfixed by the actions of the others in the network. This model can be transposed on the network of power that media-outlet consumers and producers enter. In a network of power that includes consumers and producers, both parties have fixed gazes' on each other. The consumers transfix their gazes' on the stories that media outlets produce. And, the needs of the consumers, which is in this case their need to be updated regularly, becomes the producers gaze. The producers or media outlets are in competition with other media outlets to supply their constituents with the most up-to-date information. This network of fixed gazes' is both "privileged and imperative" for the system to satisfy the status quo. This network is especially imperative when major events in the world occur, which is usually the case with terrorism. Consumers looks to media outlets to provide news on terrorism. If consumers believe terrorism is a threat to their safety, they want to be informed of the threats against them. Media outlets fulfill their viewers' needs, and portray terrorism as a threat because of the cycle that surveillance engenders. As terrorism flourishes as a prominent discourse of fear, consumers want information faster because they feel their safe being is in peril. The idea of total surveillance, as prescribed by Foucault, becomes a cycle where the disruption of power causes scrutiny by various players in system. If the media-outlets are not constantly looking for stories that fulfill consumer needs, then they are scrutinized. In addition to the surveillance aspect of news dissemination, therein is the notion that "needs" drive the network of power: both the media outlets and consumers have needs that are fulfilled by broadcasting the news. It is this idea expressed in the uses and gratifications theory. It stipulates that the active audience and the terrorist "seek to satisfy their various needs" through media transmission. While media outlets know the stories they show have astounding effects on the political and sociological perspective in society, the impetus on economic gains is of greater importance.
In a study by Gabriel Weimann from the University of Haifa, Weimann found that nearly 90% of organized terrorism on the internet takes place via social media. According to Weimann, terror groups use social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and internet forums to spread their messages, recruit members and gather intelligence.
Terror groups take to social media because social media tools are cheap and accessible, facilitate quick, broad dissemination of messages, and allow for unfettered communication with an audience without the filter or "selectivity" of mainstream news outlets. Also, social media platforms allow terror groups to engage with their networks. Whereas previously terror groups would release messages via intermediaries, social media platforms allow terror groups to release messages directly to their intended audience and converse with their audience in real time: Weimann also mentions in "Theater of Terror", that terrorists use the media to promote the theatrical like nature of the premeditated terror.
HSMPress is using Twitter the way social media experts have always advised- not just broadcasting, but engaging in conversation. Spend some time following the account, and you realize that you're dealing with a real human being with real ideas—albeit boastful, hypocritical, violent ideas.
Al-Qaeda has been noted as being one of the terror groups that uses social media the most extensively. Brian Jenkins, senior advisor for the Rand Corporation, commented on Al-Qaeda's dominant presence on the web:
While almost all terrorist organizations have websites, al Qaeda is the first to fully exploit the internet. This reflects al Qaeda's unique characteristics. It regards itself as a global movement and therefore depends on a global communications network to reach its perceived constituents. It sees its mission as not simply creating terror among its foes but awakening the Muslim community. Its leaders view communications as 90 percent of the struggle. Despite the risks imposed by intense manhunts, its leaders communicate regularly with video and audio messages, which are posted on its websites and disseminated on the Internet. The number of websites devoted to the al Qaeda-inspired movement has grown from a handful to reportedly thousands, although many of these are ephemeral.
Known terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also translated to ISIS, uses the widespread of news over social media to their advantage when releasing threatening videos of beheadings. As of November 16, 2014, following the beheading of former U.S. Army Ranger Peter Kassig, there have now been five recorded executions of Westerners taken captive in Syria. James Foley, David Cawthorne Haines, Alan Henning, and Steven Sotloff are also among the men kidnapped and executed by ISIS. The videos of the brutal beheadings are both posted online by ISIS, where they can be viewed by anyone using their own discretion, and sent to government officials as threats. Posting the executions online allows the terrorist groups the power to manipulate and cause havoc among the population viewing them, and the videos have the ability to instill fear within the Western world. The videos are typically high production quality and generally show the entirety of the gruesome act, with the hostage speaking a few words before they are killed on camera.
In the case of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig, his video did not show the actual beheading act and he did not speak any final words before the execution. His silence and the fact that the actual execution was not included in the video raised question about his video was different than the rest. In response to Kassig's beheading, his family expressed their wish that news media avoid doing what the group wants by refraining from publishing or distributing the video. By refusing to circulate the video of the beheading, it therefore loses the ability to manipulate Americans or further the cause of the terrorist group.
The Taliban has been active on Twitter since May 2011, and has more than 7,000 followers. Tweeting under the handle @alemarahweb, the Taliban tweets frequently, on some days nearly hourly. This account is currently suspended.
In December 2011, it was discovered that the Somalia-based terror cell Al-Shabab was using a Twitter account under the name @HSMPress. Since opening on December 7, 2011, the account has amassed tens of thousands of followers and tweets frequently.
AQAP and Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/DAESH)
Islamic State has emerged as one of the most potent users of social media. In many respects, Islamic State learned their propaganda craft from al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, IS quickly eclipsed its mentor, deploying a whole range of narratives, images and political proselytizing through various social media platforms. A study by Berger and Morgan estimated that at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters between September and December 2014. However, as ISIS supporters regularly get suspended and then easily create new, duplicate accounts, counting ISIS Twitter accounts over a few months can overestimate the number of unique people represented by 20–30%.
However, as the November 2015 attacks in Paris demonstrate, IS also uses old-fashioned methods of communication and propaganda. Lewis notes that the attacks in Paris represent the sort of 'propaganda in action' which was a method developed by the 19th century anarchists in Europe. The November 2015 IS attacks were perpetrated without prior warning, largely because the operatives met face-to-face and used other non-digital means of communication.
Some U.S. government officials have urged social media companies to stop hosting content from terror groups. In particular, Joe Lieberman has been especially vocal in demanding that social media companies not permit terror groups to use their tools. In 2008, Lieberman and the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs issued a report titled "Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat". The report stated that the internet is one of the "primary drivers" of the terrorist threat to the United States.
In response to the news that Al-Shabab was using Twitter, U.S. officials have called for the company to shut down the account. Twitter executives have not complied with these demands and have declined to comment on the case.
In January 2012, Twitter announced changes to their censorship policy, stating that they would now be censoring tweets in certain countries when the tweets risked breaking the local laws of that country. The reason behind the move was stated on their website as follows:
As we continue to grow internationally, we will enter countries that have different ideas about the contours of freedom of expression. Some differ so much from our ideas that we will not be able to exist there. Others are similar but, for historical or cultural reasons, restrict certain types of content, such as France or Germany, which ban pro-Nazi content.Until now, the only way we could take account of those countries' limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world. We have also built in a way to communicate transparently to users when content is withheld, and why.
The move drew criticism from many Twitter users who said the move was an affront to free speech. Many of the users threatened to quit tweeting if the policy was not rescinded, including Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.
In December 2010, in response to growing demands that YouTube pull video content from terrorist groups from its servers, the company added a "promotes terrorism" option under the "violent or repulsive content" category that viewers can select to "flag" offensive content. By limiting the terrorists access to conventional mass media and censoring news coverage of terrorist acts and their perpertrators and also minimising the terrorists allowance to manipulate mass media, the mass fear impact that is usually created will decrease.
Effectiveness of suspension
Western governments have been actively trying to surveil and censor IS social media sites. As Jeff Lewis explains, as quickly as platform managers close down accounts, IS and its supporters continually create new IDs which they then use to resurge back with new accounts and sites for propaganda. A case study of an al Shabaab account and a George Washington University white paper found that accounts that resurged did not regain the high number of followers they had had originally. However this picture is complicated as a May 2016 article in the Journal of Terrorism Research found that resurgent accounts acquire an average (median) of 43.8 followers per day, while regular jihadist accounts accrue only 8.37 followers on average per day.
Free speech and terrorism
U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has said that the U.S. Constitution does not apply to terrorists and that they have given up their rights to free speech. He cited a Supreme Court ruling that anyone providing "material support" to a terrorist organization is guilty of a crime, even if that support only involves speaking and association. He also cited terrorist speech as being like child pornography in that it does harm.
Homeland security subcommittee
On December 6, 2011 the US Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a hearing entitled "Jihadist Use of Social Media - How to Prevent Terrorism and Preserve Innovation."
At the hearing, members heard testimony from William McCants, an analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses, Aaron Weisburd, director of the Society for Internet Research, Brian Jenkins, senior advisor for the Rand Corporation and Evan Kohlmann, senior partner from Flashpoint Global Partners.
McCants stated that while terror groups were actively using social media platforms to further their goals, research did not support the notion that the social media strategies they adopted were proving effective:
We are talking about a relatively small number of people. Because the number of people is so small, it is difficult to say why some become active supporters of al-Qaeda and others do not. What we can say is that the vast majority of people who watch and read al-Qaeda propaganda will never act violently because of it. Put metaphorically, the material may be incendiary but nearly everyone is fireproof. Since that is the case, it is better to spend our resources putting out the fires and issuing warnings about the dangers of fire rather than trying to fireproof everyone or remove incendiary material.
McCants added that he did not believe that closing online user accounts would be effective in stopping radicalization and stated that closing online accounts could even disadvantage US security and intelligence forces:
I do not put much stock in closing online user accounts that do not violate our laws. I also do not put much stock in intervening with well-meaning outreach programs or removing propaganda. There are too many downsides to these approaches. They are also unnecessary. The FBI and local law enforcement in the United States have done an excellent job in finding al-Qaeda supporters online and arresting them before they hurt anyone. They have gotten very good at following the smoke trails and putting out fires.
McCants stressed that not enough research has been conducted on this topic and he would be willing to change his opinion on the matter if there was empirical evidence that proved that social media has a major role in radicalizing youth.
Weisburd stated that any organization that played a part in producing and distributing media for terrorist organizations were in fact supporting terrorism:
I would argue that a service provider who knowingly assists in the distribution of terrorist media is also culpable. While it is in no one's interest to prosecute internet service providers, they must be made to realize that they can neither turn a blind eye to the use of their services by terrorist organizations, nor can they continue to put the onus of identifying and removing terrorist media on private citizens.
Weisburd argued that social media lends an air of legitimacy to content produced by terror organizations and provides terrorist organizations an opportunity to brand their content: "Branding in terrorist media is a sign of authenticity, and terrorist media is readily identifiable as such due to the presence of trademarks known to be associated with particular organizations." He concluded that the goal of intelligence and security forces should not be to drive all terrorist media offline, but rather to deprive terror groups from the branding power gleaned from social media.
Jenkins stated that the risks associated with al Qaeda's online campaign do not justify an attempt to impose controls on content distributors. Any attempted controls would be costly and would deprive the intelligence officials of a valuable source of information. Jenkins also stated that there was no evidence that attempts to control online content would be possible:
Even China, which has devoted immense resources to controlling social media networks with far fewer concerns about freedom of speech, has been unable to block the micro blogs that flourish on the web. Faced with the shutdown of one site, jihadist communicators merely change names and move to another, dragging authorities into a frustrating game of Whac-a-mole and depriving them of intelligence while they look for the new site. Is this, then the best way to address the problem?"
Kohlmann stated US government officials must do more to pressure social media groups like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to remove content produced by terror groups:
Unfortunately, current U.S. law gives few incentives for companies like YouTube for volunteering information on illicit activity, or even cooperating when requested by U.S. law enforcement. If such companies are to be trusted to self-police their own professed commitments to fighting hate speech, then they must be held to a public standard which reflects the importance of that not unsubstantial responsibility.
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