The evolution of social media has changed every aspect of life, and that includes terrorism. The Internet has made our world a smaller place, by connecting everyone and everything, which has pros and cons. Terrorists, and specifically ISIS, have been exploiting different social media platforms over the past decade, which brings a lot of questions to the table that no one has ever thought about before. For example, should these terrorists be banned from these platforms even if they have not posted things technically promoting terrorism? Should these platforms be held responsible for the things users post on these platforms? Should these platforms be unavailable in certain areas of the world? These are all very difficult questions to answer, and since they are all new issues there has not been precedent set to help answer them.
ISIS has mainly been using Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube for three purposes; to help recruit new ISIS members, to build a recognizable brand, and to spread fear.
ISIS members have become experts at recruiting teenagers / children from around the world. ISIS has created “child soldiers” that are brainwashed from a very early age, and are very willing to give their lives for the cause. One of the most disturbing aspects of these “child soldiers” is their parents consent. There have been videos of these children saying goodbye to their parents before they embark on a suicide mission. For teenagers, ISIS creates very personalized recruitment videos that exploit teenagers that feel like they are lost in life. ISIS will use recruiters that are the same nationality and age rage of the person they are trying to recruit, so the teen feels like others like themselves are already members. There are many stories of young girls in various European countries being targeted and successfully recruited by ISIS. Many times these girls believe they are going to be helping children in Syria or that they will be the wife of a wealthy ISIS member and will live a lavish lifestyle. When they get to Syria the reality is very different. They are raped and abused multiple times a day by various ISIS members, and their only hope is escaping at some point.
Build a Brand
ISIS uses these different social media platforms to build a recognizable brand. Just like with any product / organization, people remember a brand and feel more comfortable using it because they feel they can trust it. This same logic applies to ISIS. If people that are thinking about potentially joining ISIS see online what they believe to be a legitimate “brand”, they are more likely to trust the recruiters and to trust that its is a real organization. This “band” also allows ISIs to continue using new user names when their old ones are shut down. If people can recognize the brand, they will be able to tell if the new user is part of that organization.
ISIS has spread a lot of fear to westerners from various social media platforms. The most obvious example of this are the beheading videos that they have posted. These are extremely gruesome videos that have one purpose, and that is to spread fear. This spreads fear among westerners (they have posted 5 videos beheading westerners) but it also spreads fear among other ISIS members.
Should More Be Done?
Today, many are wondering if these social media platforms need to play a more active role in shutting terrorist accounts down. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube do have policies banning content that promotes terrorism and Twitter has shut down thousands of ISIS accounts over the last few years. Facebook monitors chats for terrorist activity and has Facebook employees viewing content 24 hours a day to hopefully remove terrorist related videos as soon as possible. Beyond this, it would be very difficult for these platforms or for authorities to shut down all of these accounts. Authorities would spend countless hours shutting these accounts down and they will continue to pop up hours later under a different username. Intelligence officials have been able to gain valuable information from some of these accounts, so there is a benefit to leaving many of them open.
Pros and Cons
The cons of terrorists on social media seem to be obvious. The ability to recruit, build a brand, spread fear, and communicate are the major issues. However, there are some important pros as well that are less obvious. Intelligence officials are able to gather valuable information they otherwise would have no chance of getting. Intelligence officials measure the level of “chatter” on these platforms and a large increase or decrease can signal that ISIS may be planning an attack.
Facebook has created “safety check” which allows someone that is in the vicinity of a crisis to check in on Facebook so all of their friends and family know they are safe. September 11th happened before everyone had smartphones and Facebook, but if those platforms had existed at that time, many families would have known much sooner that their loved ones were safe. In the days following this attack, many family members of victims went to Manhattan and hung missing persons flyers to try and find their loved ones, but in 2016 many would be able to look on social media to see if friends / family were safe.
Social media also allows people in the vicinity of a crisis to know what is going on much sooner than they would otherwise. I was inspired to do this topic for my presentation because I was at the Boston Marathon in 2013 a few blocks away from the finish line when the bombs went off. It was also Patriots Day that day so when we heard the sounds of the bombs our first reaction was it must be fake cannons or some type of fake guns that were being set off as a Patriots Day celebration. A few seconds later we saw a bunch of people running away, so we quickly realized it must have been something more serious. One of the girls I was with pulled out her phone and went on Twitter, and that is how we founds out that they were in fact bombs. In probably less than 3 minutes of hearing them, there were posts on Twitter confirming the attack. As a result of that we all were much more aware about what was happening around us and that we should walk home (not take any public transportation) as soon as possible. Soon after that our phones would not place phone calls, they would only send text messages, which is how we were able to communicate with our families that knew we were at the marathon that day.
There are many pros and cons to terrorist’s presence on social media, but until there is a way to identify terrorist accounts without wasting hours of man hours, the benefits do not outweigh the cons of attempting to shut down all of these accounts. There are some important pros to social media as well that should not be overlooked.