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ISIS rampage: How can social media fight back?

“Islamic State [ISIS] are not hiding their crimes against humanity they are showcasing them which is very different and something we’ve never had before. [They are] convincing others that it’s a righteous cause and that if you join you are on the right side of history,” Kyle Matthews, founder of the Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention (DMAP) Lab tells me over the phone from Canada.

The explosion of social media in recent years has meant that users can upload and access information with some quick typing and at the click of a button. Gone are the days when you had to wait for the news at the 9pm or 10pm TV slot or until you were sitting down with a newspaper and a cup of tea. Now, thanks to social media platforms like Twitter, you can access news in real-time, as it unfolds, minute-by-minute. And no one is taking as much advantage of this medium as ISIS.

Twitter accounts of ISIS supporters are popping up with videos showing terrified victims being executed, burnt alive or drowned. There is an aim behind their brutal methodology: to shock and terrify as many people through social media as possible to its maximum effect.  

I ask Matthews what the situation is in Canada.

“ISIS is pretty prominent. We had two attacks here last October. We’ve had seven or eight Canadians [that have been killed] because they went over to join them. There have [also] been videos urging the killing of Canadians,” Matthews tells me.

The easy answer would be to block all access for ISIS to Twitter or other social media sites to spread their messages. In fact, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated she wants this recently. But even if one account is blocked, a user can easily make another one and be up on the site again in a matter of minutes.

"It’s a kind of like whack-a-mole. You see Twitter accounts of ISIS propping up again saying “this is my 25th Twitter account you can’t stop me!

“So how do you enforce that?” Matthews adds.

Matthews has an approach that he believes will work. He formed the Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab [DMAP lab] a year and a half ago to begin studying what could be done to counter extremist ideologies online. He wants to use social media to give alternative points of view that will provide resilience online to extremist messaging. Creating this “counter narrative” is very important to Matthews as at the moment he feels it’s all very one-sided.

“We’re seeing this convergence between technology, extremism and incitement so we are really starting to work on that. We’ve been approached by different police forces that want us to help give briefings on how social media can be used by groups to recruit extremist fighters, to infiltrate and spread ideologies.”

Matthews says that he and his team are working on a number of different ways that will help towards countering ISIS’s extremism online.

“There’s been so many videos from ISIS supporters - it’s a war of ideas - we need to find people that have escaped and start interviewing them and putting these videos online and translate them into multiple languages so that the internet is not just a one-sided story.”

Matthew’s lab needs funding from government in order for his projects to make an impact but the slow response from government in reacting to how fast extremist messaging is spreading on social media has been a constant source of frustration for him.

“One of the frustrating things is that it takes a year for a program to get identified and get going. I think the reality is, there needs to be a much deeper amount of training across governments across the world on how social media is being used and how to counter it.”

But Matthews and other anti-ISIS organisations have a hefty task on their hands. The truth of the matter is that ISIS runs a very sophisticated operation. Videos are shot with perfect lighting and from the ground to ensure maximum impact. Careful grooming tactics are used on Twitter to target the young and vulnerable. Even the way the tweets are blasted out have a tactical approach behind them.

In The ISIS Twitter Census, it was found that there are at least 46,000 Twitter accounts operating on behalf of ISIS.

The report states:

They employ a variety of techniques, including repeated tweets of the same content by the same user within a short period of time, and tweeting the same content by many users within a short period of time.

Matthews agrees that ISIS deploys various methods to achieve their end goals – even going as far as using sign language to get people to commit violence.

“They have people targeting young women, people targeting young boys. They are putting out videos on YouTube aimed at deaf people in Europe and using sign language to get them to commit violent actions in Europe against fellow citizens. Also translating [these videos] into five different languages - these guys are producing a lot of video content and producing it for a global audience.”

“I don’t know anyone else who is doing this,” adds Matthews.

It’s a very far world from the post 9/11 days of terrorist organisation Al-Qaeda, headed by Osama bin Laden which at the time, posed a very real and serious threat to Western countries around the world.

But even Al-Qaeda find ISIS too “extreme” and that’s really saying something.

"ISIS came out of Al Qaeda so there is a connection here. But the early days of Al-Qaeda releasing a video sent to a few news agencies are over. ISIS have picked up the game. They’re not just conveying messages out of some dark room in a flat in London, Bagdad or Kabul.

“They’re actually showing videos from the battlefield of them capturing soldiers and beheading them. [Their message is] we’re not just asking people to do something, we’re actually doing it [ourselves] and asking them to join us. We have the courage so why don’t you? They’re doing it right from the ground,” adds Matthews.

What sorts of techniques do they use to recruit young people?

"I’ve seen a lot of grooming similar to sexual predators online where they say I’m your friend and I’m here to support you and then it goes off onto more private online systems such as Snapchat, where messages are sent but never recorded.

“There was a report about two months ago that now ISIS is pushing a lot of people to stop using Western social media accounts for connections and planning and moving to Russia’s version of Facebook called VKontakte. So they are moving on to other social media platforms, especially where Western intelligence agencies can’t track them.”

One terrorist organisation that is committing similar atrocities but getting less attention is Boko Haram. Is there a difference in the way they are both using social media to further their ends?

“Boko Haram now say they are affiliated with ISIS. Boko Haram have been very low tact. They are operating in an area that doesn’t really have internet or strong cell phone [coverage] so they are operating in a different environment that simply doesn’t allow them to produce the same amount of quality in social media propaganda. You don’t see them translating their messages into multiple languages. We are just not seeing that. They are not as advanced,” says Matthews.

But why is ISIS getting more press attention?

“Boko Haram is committing almost if not worse violence against millions - but I think the reason they are paying more attention to ISIS is because we have a wider group of countries falling apart and also in some ways it’s much closer to Western Europe so from a Western perspective it could be a real security problem for NATO etc.”

But then there are some companies profiting from jihadists using their services. Matthews tells me there is a company in California called CloudFlare and jihadists are using their cloud networks. Flashpoint Global Partners, a New York-based “dark web” data mining and security consulting firm in its report, states that “two of ISIS’ top three online chat forums are currently guarded by CloudFlare. After the company’s CEO Matthew Prince was approached about why his services are being used to provide protection to terrorist websites, he said, “it would not be right for us to monitor the content that flows through our network and make determinations on what is and what is not politically appropriate”.

This seems like a vicious cycle. How can militant groups like ISIS be countered if at the same time they are receiving inside help too?

“I think you’re absolutely right - there’s been a lot of criticism of them but there could be legislation on the grounds that this is against national security. You’re supporting groups that are breaking international laws.”

But if something is not done about ISIS soon, the wider impact on society is really worrying.

“My fear is that if we don’t start to counter ISIS and their extremism online then this is going to create a wider message and suspicion and start to break down social cohesion. If we are unable to give it a counter-narrative, it’s not good for Western society or inter-faith relations. It’s not just something online, it’s also our societies,” Matthews concludes.


Related reading:

The Islamic State online: ISIL’s many accounts

Iraq: Islamic State’s digital fortress

The politics of technology in the Islamic world


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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