Online extremism: we need to target causes rather than symptoms

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

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.

Dr. Erin Marie Saltman is a Quilliam research project officer

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5 Responses to “Online extremism: we need to target causes rather than symptoms”

  1. Political Hostage

    Ok. So is social media the cause? Considering the source of this article it looks like that’s the position this site is taking. Social media isn’t the cause, it’s liberal war policy by the last two administrations that’s closer to the root of the problem. America’s arms have been tied in every conflict going back to Vietnam thanks to the liberal politicization of efforts. Good luck with that.

  2. Liam Fairley

    Blame America: the standard default position of the ‘left’

  3. SimonB

    No mention of religious conservatism as a reaction to the perceived faults of a liberal culture gaining global influence? Any supposed analysis of the phenomenon of violent jihad needs to explain why people are being recruited. This article is largely noise. The only really useful point is hinted in the last paragraph and not expanded upon. What a waste of time!

  4. Paul J

    Bearing in mind the US and it’s “allies” in the gulf and Turkey have nurtured the jihadis in Syria they may have a point this time around.

  5. Just Visiting

    But Syria is proof of the fact that there are competing factions _within the Arab world_, who have been sending money and more to different factions within the rebels: Iran and Saudi: Shia vs Sunni.

    So it is silly to blame the US ‘and allies’ as if they were the most influential player in town – they simply weren’t and aren’t.

    The fact that the countries with the most at stake: the arab region: have failed to unite and send in their own peace-keeping forces is again evidence, that there are two opposing sides locally there, neither with much of a pro-US agenda!

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