Increased Presence of Terrorist Organizations on Social Media: Challenges For Social Networks

Prasant Naidu
Prasant Naidu Founder, Lighthouse Insights

Posted on October 2nd 2013

Increased Presence of Terrorist Organizations on Social Media: Challenges For Social Networks

The world today is reeling under the dark clouds of terrorism. While it is a fight for independence for some, it is the fight of supremacy for the others. Take a look at any corner of the world – it is either witnessing terrorist acts or trying to heal from them. The fight at the cost of innocent lives has complicated to the brink and with time the modus operandi of these acts have also improved.

Today when we see the mass scale adoption of the latest technology and businesses going social, how can terrorist organizations be left behind? From websites, these organizations have moved on to social media. From hiring new recruits to spreading the message, terrorist organizations are trying to connect with like-minded individuals on social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

terrorists on social mediaAdoption of social media grows by terrorist organizations

The latest use of social media by African militants who attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi, was a relatively advanced psychological warfare operation. The militants primarily used Twitter to broadcast their goals while relating behind-the-scenes of the mayhem, leading Twitter to suspend the account of Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militant group after the rebels used the service to claim responsibility for the deadly attack. Hours later, the group resurfaced using a different account name to give real-time updates of the siege. That account, too, has since been suspended.

Al-Shabaab group that claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack, has killed at least 68 people and wounded more than 175 people, and has been suspended thrice in the year so far. The group’s account was suspended in January after it published photos of a French commando it claimed to have killed and threatened via Twitter to execute Kenyan hostages. The group popped up again, but was blocked this month, a few days after using the site to threaten Somalia’s president.

While Al-Shabaab group was gaining maximum exposure, the international terrorist organization Al-Qaeda was also on Twitter, under the guise of its Shamukh al-Islam website, the official website of the terror organization. The Twitter account – which had tweeted 29 tweets before getting suspended – had tweets ranging in topics from death tallies to religious proclamations under the handle @shomokhalislam with almost 1,800 followers.

al-Qaeda Twitter accountCounterterrorism analysts view the new account to be another indicator that terrorist groups are stepping up their use of social media over traditional Internet sites. But at the same time officials are also saying that the emergence of the new Twitter account comes as jihadists are facing a major split, both online and on the ground, over divisions between al Nusra and ISIL. Divisions like these are good news which will render the group less effective and limit its ability to conduct deadly attacks and bombings.

New challenges pose for social networks

But this also means a new set of challenges for social networks.

Interest towards online tools have been a long tradition by banned Pakistan terrorist groups, states the New Statesman. Last month the publication had published a story on how Pakistan’s militant and extremist organizations are increasingly aware of the importance of the internet. Banned religious groups – which often carry out social work besides their more unsavoury activities – exploit the internet. Many also use Twitter and Facebook as a chance to change their image and recruit members.

An apt example would be Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a major religious organisation in Pakistan. It is banned by the US, the UN and the EU because of its alleged role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But the organisation is not banned inside Pakistan, where it runs a large charitable network.

But what do social networks like Facebook or Twitter do at a time when there are accounts that are trying to put their official statement and there are ones who are spreading hate messages. Twitter, which avoids in responding on suspension of selective accounts, has a policy that states – user content will be censored if it is used “for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities.” It also prohibits activity if users “publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.” Twitter doesn’t actively monitor the content in search of potential violations to these rules. Instead, it relies on external reports of such violations.

Facebook, which is also another popular network among such organizations especially in the Asian continent, have community standards that state government-recognized terrorist organizations aren’t allowed on the social-networking site.

Is suspension of accounts enough?

But mere suspension is no long term solution since these organizations pop up with a different name every time. For example the Syrian Electronic Army, have resurfaced more than a dozen times in different iterations on Twitter after having their previous accounts suspended. And moreover these organizations can get their work done easily, by their followers on social without coming into the limelight.

A fact that came up during the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad suggests that Bin Laden himself may have posted messages on this forum. The dead Al Qaeda chief was very careful to stay away from electronic devices himself, but it is thought he wrote down messages on pieces of paper which a trusted lieutenant would then type and save on to a USB stick, finally passing this to someone else to post on the forum.

Besides censoring accounts would lead nowhere but more publicity for the Twitter accounts like it did in the case of blocking the official al-Shabaab account. Kenyan security forces and journalists alike were using the live tweets from al-Shabaab to build up a picture of what was unfolding inside the shopping mall. When Twitter suspended the account, numerous fake accounts sprung up claiming to be the latest reincarnation of the Somali terrorist group’s online presence.

Can social media, specially networks like Twitter, allow intelligence agencies more scope for analysis of the terrorists’ methods? We will need to bring a balance but rampant suspension of the accounts will lead to no good. Easier said than done but for now we are not left with much of a choice as social media usage by the terrorist organizations continue to grow.

Prasant Naidu

Prasant Naidu

Founder, Lighthouse Insights

Founder and Blogger at http://lighthouseinsights.in, Indian social and digital media news.

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