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Social Advocacy and Politics: Social Media and Violent Extremism

Twitter’s clarification of its rules regarding the posting of threats and promotion of violence raises (again) two key questions regarding how we evaluate and respond to social media posts about the use of violence to pursue extremist goals. How do we differentiate between people talking about violent extremism and people promoting it? Is it better to ban promoters of violent extremism or monitor them for intelligence gathering? In the wake of Donald Trump suggesting that we should shut down parts of the Internet and our efforts to understand the San Bernardino attack, authorities and the public are looking to social media to try to make sense of its relationship to violent extremism.

Authorities disclosed that Larki Zaat, one of the two shooters in San Bernardino, posted her allegiance to ISIS on Facebook less than 15-minutes after the shooting began. While this post could not have been used to help law enforcement stop the attacks before they happened, it is another example of how violent extremists use social media to disseminate propaganda, recruit supporters and plan terror operations. In the past year, two research reports chronicling aspects of ISIS’s use of social media have been released. The first report, which was released by the Brookings Institute in March 2015, titled The ISIS Twitter Census, documents and analyzes the extent and function of ISIS’s Twitter network. The second, released this month by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism in December, titled ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa, analyzes the role social media played in the radicalization and recruitment of Americans to the ISIS cause. Given all this attention paid to the role of social media in the rise of ISIS and given the strong backlash we are seeing against Syrian refugees, Muslim immigrants and Muslims in general in America, it is important that we identify the many contexts with which people talk about ISIS and violent extremism on social media to avoid knee-jerk overreactions.

Image from Brookings' report on ISIS and Twitter

While it is clear that social media is being used by ISIS and other extremists to do bad things, it is not warranted to blame social media. As many have said, social media has been an incredible force for good around the world at the same time that it has facilitated acts of evil and extreme violence. This is true of all communications channels—phones, television, radio, email, print, websites, etc. Rather than focus on the channels being used as the problem, it is essential to focus on who is using them to facilitate violent extremism and how they are doing so. And the reports provided by Brookings and George Washington University do this well.

Image from George Washington University's report on ISIS recruitment and Twitter

To add to these and other quality analyses of the relationship between social media, violent extremism, generally, and ISIS, specifically, we need a clear typology of how people are talking about ISIS, as an example of violent extremism, on social media. This will provide guidance for identifying which conversations need to be flagged and which do not. And it will help ensure that we do not over-react and undermine all the good that social media does around the world.

Authorities are being tasked with looking at social media in order to identify ISIS sympathizers, people vulnerable to being recruited by ISIS, people who have become radicalized and people who are acting on their radicalization. Within each of the categories of social media posts identified here, we can find examples of these people among those participating in the conversation. But, it should be clear that in most cases, people talking about ISIS on social media are not synonymous with threats of violent extremism. In fact, most of these posts are from people who are concerned about ISIS with some combination of curiosity and fear.

Conversations and posts on social media about ISIS fall into the several categories, most commonly these:

  • Public reactions to acts of terrorism and violence – Each time there is an act of violence perpetrated by ISIS, supporters of ISIS or other acts of terrorism, there is a public reaction. These include sympathy for the victims, outrage against the individuals who perpetrated the attack, and accusations and anger towards ISIS or other group behind the attack—perceived or real. But some reactions may reveal sympathy with the attackers and their cause.
  • Policy discussions about how to respond to ISIS – Policy discussions about how to respond to violent extremism and terrorism, generally, and ISIS, in particular range from providing a competing narrative on social media to sending in the troops. But while some may consider people who oppose harsher military responses enemy supporters, there are plenty of reasons to oppose that response without siding with the enemy. Weeding out opposition who are sympathizers from those who see escalating military responses as ineffective and/or counter-productive is essential when monitoring social media for intelligence gathering.
  • Comments about ISIS’s ideology and goals – The public debate about ISIS ranges from basic descriptions of their behavior to deeper philosophical discussions about the clash of civilizations. The deeper the philosophical focus of these conversations, the more likely we will see people positing the reasons why people get radicalized and why violent extremists within the broader Muslim community do what they do. Some of this discussion will refer to policies and actions by western nations against Muslim nations and peoples. Much the same as the discussion about how western imperialism created many problems in Africa, identifying possible causes of the outcomes is NOT the same as supporting the use of extremist violence in response to them. “Sympathizing” with why people feel and respond the way they do in these situations can range from understanding to supporting. It is imperative that we recognize the distinction.
  • Declarations of solidarity with ISIS – Declaring solidarity with ISIS (or with violent extremists) is a clear departure from understanding them. It is the explicit endorsement of their goals and should raise warning flags among authorities. Larki Zaat made this declaration after the shooting started in San Bernardino, but in many situations there is forewarning. Monitoring for these types of posts should be the highest priority for authorities.
  • Demonization of Muslims in response to the threat of ISIS – While so much of the focus has been on identifying potential ISIS recruits and supporters of violent extremism from Muslims, we should not forget that some of the responses to that threat can also suggest an extreme violent response. Demonizing all Muslims out of a justifiable fear of violent extremists increases the risk of innocent people being harmed by people taking matters into their own hands. Armed protesters, for example, gathering outside a mosque in Texas is a good example. The odds are overwhelming that the members of that congregation are peace-loving members of the community. But the heightened threat created by protestors carrying rifles outside their place of worship should be of concern to the authorities. And any indication on social media that someone intends to do harm to Muslims in their community should be taken just as seriously as indications that someone in a community has been radicalized to do violence on behalf of ISIS.

One final note: Even the word “radicalization” has become a problem. Being radicalized does NOT mean you plan to do violence. In a very real sense, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were radicalized. But they were driven to make radical change in their countries by means of peaceful, nonviolent protest. So it is never enough to show that someone has radical views. It is about demonstrating that they intend to use violence to achieve their goals.

In the end, this is not an easy challenge. Some will argue that we cannot afford to miss a threat, so we must be over-zealous in identifying its potential. But we must always remember that being over-zealous in identifying and responding to perceived threats increases the risk of making mistakes, thus making the threats more real than they actually were in the first place.

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Alan Rosenblatt, Ph.D. is Sr. VP of Digital Strategy at turner4D and publishes this column every other Tuesday. He has been working at the intersection of the internet and public affairs for over 25 years.

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