Online extremism: we need to target causes rather than symptoms

Originally Published by Left Foot Forward: 23 June 2014. Original linked here.

Erasing extremist content and prosecuting foreign fighters won’t be enough.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the jihadist group that has taken control of large areas of central Iraq in recent weeks, seems to be unstoppable in its advance towards Baghdad. However, the success of ISIS is not confined to the battlefield alone, the group seems to be having almost as much success in the social media sphere as it provides regular Twitter updates on its progress.

In fact, ISIS is unprecedented in its mastery of social media strategies, having launched its own Arabic-language Twitter app called ‘The Dawn of Glad Tidings’ that allows users to have their accounts stream ISIS-approved hashtags, images and content.

Although this app was shut down last week, ISIS followed up by launching their largest social media campaign to date. The recently proscribed terrorist group is now asking supporters around the world to go out into public spaces and take photos of themselves holding the ISIS flag, and then post the photos online along with the Arabic hashtag ‘The Friday of Supporting ISIS’ or the English ‘All eyes on ISIS’.

Besides this, they’ve recently started to use “Twitter Bombs”, in which supporters tweet propaganda with unrelated hashtags like #Brazil2014 and #WorldCup, thereby finding it a new audience.

This global hashtag strategy blends a sense of global community with popular culture around what is, in essence, a terrorist agenda. The more ISIS is able to mainstream themselves as revolutionary activists, rather than terrorists, the more they will be able to reach out to young recruits and tap into alternative funding streams. This is what their social media strategy is intended to achieve.

ISIS are also aiming to build greater credibility for themselves as the ‘only game in town’, superseding the strength and popularity of rival groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda affiliates.

Meanwhile, governments and counter-terrorist practitioners are, as always, on the back foot, still relying on negative measures to try and block, filter and censor the feeds coming from extremist networks. As one account is taken down, others appear. Counter-content that challenges the ISIS narrative is woefully lacking.

Last week, the British government published a draft order deeming that anyone supporting ISIS will be undertaking a criminal act. Although the promotion of terrorist organisations is already illegal under the UK Terrorist Acts, it is important that ISIS was named specifically. It will be interesting to see if social media users retweeting and reposting ISIS propaganda are prosecuted, or if this is more just civil service manoeuvring.

This is the first time that the world is facing a true case of Jihad Trending. With the rapid advancement and quick evolution of social media, we are witnessing online tools being used to cultivate support, recruit foreigners, connect with alternative forms of funding and spread a well-articulated propaganda messaging to the masses.

Erasing extremist content and prosecuting foreign fighters will not be the solution in effectively countering terrorist groups. We need to target causes rather than symptoms, narrowing the allure of extremist messaging and clarifying national and international positions towards such groups so that we decrease the scope for extremists to monopolise the discourse.

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