Fear and propaganda are the weapons of war and, increasingly, so too is social media. Indeed, social media has come under attack as it becomes the ideal media outlet for terrorists and extremist groups. Recruitment, training, planning and coordination of attacks, intimidation tactics, and displays of weaponry and power have all been achieved online through avenues such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Whatsapp.
ISIS and Terrorism
The conflict in Iraq and Syria is an international concern and, recently, Canada joined forces with the United States in opposing the self-named “Islamic State” group (ISIS). Recently excommunicated from al-Qaeda as being to violent, ISIS is a relatively new upstart that has won the devotion of jihadists the world-over. Young conscripts, would-be terrorist fighters, from over 80 countries have flocked to Syria to join the ISIS campaign of terror. For the most part, they are younger than the demographic al-Qaeda enlisted, and many were recruited through social media such as Twitter.
Social media is a way of life for some of the younger generation, and the propaganda and promises of glamour that they are exposed to over Twitter and other outlets is proving to be a particularly effective recruitment tool.
It is well-documented that youth aged 16-24 are at an emotional and intellectual stage of their development where they are seeking direction in their lives through self-determination and independent thought. This makes them more passionate and devoted to causes they have taken on, but it also makes them more easily influenced by grandiose displays. Logic does not necessarily play a huge part in their decision-making processes when emotions are stirred.
Canadians supporting ISIS
A number of Canadian citizens have joined ISIS, and some have even moved to Syria and denounced their Canadian heritage. They make use of social media to boast about their weapons and equipment as well as their opinions and their acts of terrorism, violence and depravity. Guns and militants posing with their weapons and ammunition are common Tweets, while macabre jokes about beheadings display the extremist mentality these recruits have adopted. American journalist James Foley became the brunt of some of these online taunts when he was beheaded on camera. Tweets such as these are intended to spread fear and tweets are frequently used in newspapers and journalistic articles. Social media, however, is a much faster means of spreading information, regardless of whether its intention is information, disinformation or instilling fear.
Recruitment into ISIS and propaganda are just the beginning of what is becoming known as Twitter Terrorism. ISIS has also made use of social media to intimate Iraqi forces into retreat through live tweeting of mass executions and announcing their operation plans through social media. This form of intimidation is one that the world has never before seen in war. Defence forces were completely unprepared for it, but are now vigilant and actively searching social media for future occurrences. Twitter is also believed to have been used to coordinate the recent attacks on military personnel in Montreal and Ottawa.
Hashtags, a common method of searching for related tweets, has also become a weapon of war. The first hashtag to appear on Twitter in support of ISIS was an Arabic one that means one billion Muslims who support ISIS. One particular hashtag, #AllEyesOnISIS, has become the sounding board for ISIS supporters and includes photos of handwritten notes supporting ISIS, memes, and photos of supporters in military outfit, as well as odes and shout-outs to martyrs to ISIS’s cause. However, it appears that many of the tweets, particularly the initial ones in June 2014, were by the same small number of people. This demonstrates a strong influence of activist involvement in ensuring the success and publicity of the hashtag propagation.
The Psychology of Twitter Terrorism
Social media sites were created for information sharing and are therefore not equipped to be policed for terrorist activity. Such platforms are often seen as a ‘megaphone’ to extremists’ intent on getting their message across to a mass audience - they are easily accessible and largely unmonitored. Some experts have claimed that as a result of this, social media has become part of ‘war paint’ and a tool for propaganda and intimidation. Extremists can gain ‘followers’ globally - a power trip that goes far beyond the influence of previous war leaders such as Hitler and Starling.
Social media also provides a level of anonymity and safety for extremists, protecting them - to some extent - from the law. This has the additional effect of making support and military strength seem more overwhelming and influential than it really is. While the militants actively available to ISIS for any acts of war they wish to carry out may not be in great enough numbers to overwhelm their opposition, the intimidation and fear their apparent support commands may be enough to demoralize opposing forces.
The War against Twitter Terrorism
So, what is being done to prevent or stop the use of social media for terrorist activity? A number of strategies have been put in place. For example, the Iraqi government implemented internet blackouts and bans on the Twitter and Facebook accounts of ISIS fighters. However, more needs to be done, as highlighted by Robert Hannigan, Director of the British surveillance agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Hannigan is reported to have expressed the need for social media companies to take terrorism more seriously. At present, such companies remain intent on not compromising the freedom of expression that their services are based on. However, it has been argued that they need to do more to cooperate with security agencies as without such cooperation surveillance will always remain one step behind the terrorists.
With the globalization of communications and ease with which information can be shared came social media jihadism. A medium intended for human connection and sharing knowledge and skills became an extremist recruitment office, a weapon of fear and intimidation, a training ground for militants, and a war room. This is further proof that any tool intended for the good of mankind can be distorted into a weapon of destruction and chaos. However, we can rest assured that Intelligence agencies are actively tracking these tweeting terrorists, taking espionage to a new and necessary level.
Dr Nicola Davies is a psychologist and writer with an interest in the psychology behind frontline work.
© FrontLine Security 2015