Chapter 4: Social Media

18 Case Study: Terrorist Usage of Social Media

From wikipedia:

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.

Use of social media

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.[4] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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:[6]

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.[6]

Terror groups using social media

Al-Qaeda has been noted as being one of the terror groups that uses social media the most extensively.[7] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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,[9] 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.[8] 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.[10] 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.[10] 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.[10]

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.[11]

In December 2011, it was discovered that the Somalia-based terror cell Al-Shabab was using a Twitter account under the name @HSMPress.[12] Since opening on December 7, 2011, the account has amassed tens of thousands of followers and tweets frequently.[12]

Shortly after a series of coordinated Christmas bombings in Kono, Nigeria, in 2011, the Nigerian-based terror group Boko Haram released a video statement defending their actions to YouTube.[13]

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.[14] A study by Berger and Morgan estimated that at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters between September and December 2014.[15] However, as ISIS supporters regularly get suspended and then easily create new, duplicate accounts,[14] counting ISIS Twitter accounts over a few months can overestimate the number of unique people represented by 20-30%.[16]

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.


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