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To beat terrorists online, let’s raise our social media game

The Internet has provided terrorist groups with an invaluable tool for disseminating their message.
Satyamoorthy Kabilan

National Security and Strategic Foresight

Originally published in the Globe and Mail September 8, 2014

The Internet has provided terrorist groups with an invaluable tool for disseminating their message. The ability to post ideas, host discussion forums, and broadcast videos has been a cornerstone for some groups to spread their message and attempt to recruit new members.

However, the Internet has evolved significantly with the advent of social media and the availability of connected mobile devices. It is now possible to post video and messages in real-time and to engage in multiple two-way conversations with individuals across the globe at the push of a button. Terrorist groups have been quick to adapt to this new reality and have adopted new approaches to spread their message.

In October, 2013, I wrote about al-Shabab’s use of Twitter to provide real-time commentary of the Westgate Mall siege in Kenya. The manner in which it continued to send out messages by setting up new accounts faster than Twitter could block them was both impressive and disturbing.

More recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the militant group running rampant in Iraq, has been using an application to outfox some of Twitter’s controls. The application sends out messages and images through the Twitter accounts of its users which are carefully separated in order to avoid triggering Twitter’s spam detection algorithms.

This provides massive surges in Twitter activity to coincide with ISIS’ military offensives. ISIS has also been adept at getting people to tweet certain hashtags to amplify their messages or even piggybacking onto popular hashtags around the 2014 FIFA World Cup. All of these tactics have served to promote ISIS’s message and strengthen its reach across Twitter.

One of the most worrying aspects of the innovative and effective use of social media by terrorist groups is how it can influence a younger generation. The ability to initiate an international, real-time dialogue with multiple participants is what sets social media apart from traditional media. This dialogue is very attractive to a younger generation that can be more easily engaged through social media and expects on-line interaction and instantaneous updates. Social media, more than just the Internet alone, is becoming a battleground in the fight against terrorism and radicalization to violence.

So, what can be done against this threat? Trying to stop these groups from accessing and using social media is almost like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole –no matter how many accounts you shut down, more keep popping up. Additionally, groups like al-Shabab continue to develop new and innovative tools to circumvent the controls on social media networks.

Rather than simply trying to stop the flow of extremist information on social media, government as well as law enforcement and other involved agencies need to get better at using social media. We need to become the trusted voice and, in many cases, the popular voice, on issues around terrorism. In doing so, we can share our perspective on the story, offer the facts, and effectively counter extremist messaging. This approach is not without risk. To build a capable social media presence, organizations will need to embrace the social aspect of it, be actively engaged, and be part of its conversations. This social aspect is built by interesting, individual personalities that many corporate accounts lack. I would argue that the answer lies in providing multiple members of an organization the ability to represent their organization on social media. Given the right training and a coherent strategy to follow, they can add much needed personality to a social media campaign and lend multiple voices to any given issue.

Despite the risk of individual mistakes and the required change in mindset for bureaucracy, I would also argue that the risk of not being a core part of the conversation and simply remaining mute, is far more dangerous. The benefits simply outweigh the risks.

We have recently seen successful uses of social media by authorities in emergency situations such as the 2013 Calgary flood and the tragic shootings in Moncton. Organizations like the Toronto Police Service (TPS) have had policies in place for some time that allow members of the force to represent the organization on social media. TPS has also been very vocal insharing experiences. Learning from these and continuing to build a social media presence can help combat the threat of violent extremism in the virtual world. We simply cannot afford to have the extremists leading the conversation on social media.

By quickly occupying the public space around social media before someone else does, we can prevent others from setting the agenda and grant ourselves the opportunity to tell our own story first.


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