In my last blog, part 1 of “The Information War,” I argued that online propaganda is an important element in the radicalization and recruitment of jihadists. Story after story in the media have continued to demonstrate this observation, beyond the examples already mentioned in my last post. For example, in mid-March, the Islamic State (ISIS, Da’ech) published a video showing the execution in Syria, by a child soldier of an accused spy. The victim was later identified as an Israeli Arab, whose brother claimed he was lured to the group via Facebook. Moreover, in late March, Rolling Stone Magazine featured an excellent article, “The Children of ISIS,” detailing the story of American teenage siblings who sought to join the group in Syria. Their radicalization and recruitment were substantially via social media. Their parents had noticed no changes in their behavior other than them spending more time alone on the computer.
Beyond these anecdotes, there is empirical evidence attesting to the role of online jihadist recruitment. One study, cited by Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, demonstrates that the Internet played a role in the radicalization of 90% of jihadists at the European level. An article in Le Monde questioned whether the study’s 160 cases were sufficient to draw conclusions, but actually that is not such a small sample size. Statistically, assuming those cases are representative of a European jihadist population of, say, 10,000, one could conclude with 98% confidence that more than 80% of the time, the Internet played a role.
On the other hand, that study does not expand upon the degree of radicalization online compared to other sources, such as a physical interlocutor. In this regard, another finding, provided by renowned terrorism researcher J.M. Berger, is worth considering. He stated in U.S. Congressional testimony that, of the 30 Americans who were caught by law enforcement officials for attempting to join ISIS or carry out acts of terror inspired by the group, “In every case, a significant social media component was found in the radicalization or recruitment process” (emphasis added). As the Director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) James B. Comey put it recently, ISIS recruitment pitches on social media, viewed by “hundreds, maybe thousands” of Americans, are “like the devil sitting on their shoulders saying, ‘Kill, kill, kill.’” To a large extent, the dust is settling over the debate on whether online propaganda contributes significantly to jihadism with a resounding yes.
In response to the holdout skeptics
Still, there are some who continue to deny this point. For example, a recent piece in Open Canada argued that by publicizing its atrocities, ISIS gains more enemies than friends, and therefore, the benefit of its propaganda activities comes up null. Indeed, some of the ISIS videos, displaying the group’s brutal violence, strongly resemble the anti-ISIS videos doing just the same. But, that does not mean the group is intentionally shooting itself in the foot by posting such clips. Indeed, one barrier to understanding the appeal of jihadism is that, for many people, the inhumanity of the group is a no-brainer. This sentiment is expressed, for example, by U.S. Assistant Attorney General John Carlin in a statement regarding a communications strategy to counter jihadism: “How do we explain that an ideology that’s based on enslaving other people, killing women and children, and is fundamentally nihilistic is one you shouldn’t join?”
The problem is that there are many people out there, often impressionable youth, who are drawn to the jihadists’ images of “strength,” however atrocious, giving them real hope of one day establishing a “Caliphate.” And there are plenty of strategies to justify the violence along the way (“we only target infidels, ‘demonic shi’a,’ or those who stand in our way”). There are also ways to deny, relativize, or minimize the violence (“others, namely Western militaries, do worse”). Moreover, the fact that brutality draws more enemies just plays into the ISIS strategy of painting themselves as the underdog, saying “join us, because the world is against us” (even if the world is still letting them sow increasing chaos in Syria).
In addition, it is important to keep in mind that there are different elements to jihadist propaganda. Some messages are intended to intimidate enemies and internal defectors (the most brutal of videos), while others are more strongly geared to new recruits. The latter seek to convince the audience that there is a duty to a particular interpretation of jihad, in order to be a “good Muslim.” More toxically, this propaganda tries to show that ISIS is already running a functioning state and is on its way to establishing the utopia-like Caliphate, one that is not only sanctified, but could also provide a real sense of community and belonging (not to mention, a significant other with whom to marry). Life in Syria, according to the propaganda, may even be luxurious, especially once the treasures of the enemy have been pillaged, while those who end up “martyred” go straight to paradise.
Policing the Internet and social media
I ended my last blog by noting that the tougher question is what to do about all of this, which I would address next: so here goes. While the passage of the new French law on electronic surveillance places more attention on surveying private communications in support of terrorism, my focus here is on the public propaganda of jihadists on websites and social media platforms, which remains a timely subject. Indeed, it was the topic of a May 7 hearing at the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security.
French authorities have also shown an increasing interest in this issue since the January attacks, as demonstrated, for example by Cazeneuve’s visit to Silicon Valley the following month to push companies to better police jihadism on their platforms. The authorities have, in particular, drawn parallels between the dangers and mechanisms to combat online child pornography and online jihadist propaganda. For example, a law in early February facilitated the entry into force of both a 2011 decree blocking child pornography websites and a November 2014 one blocking websites that incite terrorism.
The comparison with child pornography has also been invoked by French authorities as part of a broader campaign to regulate racist, hateful, and harassing speech. For example, President Hollande stated in a meeting with Jewish leaders, “Since we managed to remove the circulation of child pornography images on social networks, we must act in the same way against those who advocate racism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.” The new restrictions on jihadist propaganda are seen as falling in line with this policy.
Of course, one big issue concerns the balance of civil liberties, namely liberty of expression, and security. To be sure, the precise balance varies even among democratic countries. For example, French jurisprudence on the issue differs strongly with the U.S. one, the latter more fundamentalist about the right to free speech. In France, like in all free societies, liberty of expression is a highly cherished value: the millions of demonstrators promoting it in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks surely attest to this. But the law draws a clear line at hate speech targeting a group of people (though not their beliefs or sacred figures in the form of bans on blasphemy: after all, we are talking about the home of Voltaire). It is not so strange thus that glorifying terrorism is banned here, while the U.S. only bans direct incitement to violence. (By the way, advocating anorexia is also criminalized in France). The question of how to determine who exactly is glorifying terrorism is surely messy, but that does not make the law banning such websites a bad idea.
With regards to social media, however, the free speech debate is somewhat of a moot point: If one can’t force social media platforms to take down terrorist-promoting materials via laws prohibiting such speech, pressure could be applied on them to do so voluntary. Liberty of expression does not imply the right to a Twitter account. Indeed, in the past year Facebook, Youtube, and more recently Twitter have gotten on board to start taking down jihadist materials and accounts. Twitter was the holdout that resisted such measures for some time, but it ceded last fall. Campaigning by pressure groups may have helped (aside from the French government, by such groups as the Counter Extremism Project, whose CEO is a former U.S. Ambassador to the UN).
However, there is still more to do. There is not always as much of a coordinated effort to remove jihadist materials as there is for pornography. Part of the reason is that the line of what should and shouldn’t be banned is less clear for the former. For example, many researchers and news agencies display parts of jihadist videos and recruitment materials in order to denounce or raise awareness about jihadism, while posting child pornographic videos would be unthinkable for those concerned about the phenomenon. For these reasons it is possible to encode pornography videos with markers that make it impossible to re-post them on the Internet, but this is more tricky for jihadist ones. Taking down jihadist materials, thus relies on them being signaled to social media providers. Problematically, there is not always an organized and systematic campaign to do so.
Practical concerns about banning jihadist propaganda
Skeptics of bans on online jihadist propaganda raise a few practical points. The first is whether erasing jihadist materials will just spur them to be re-posted, springing up like weeds all over the Internet. But, it’s hard to prove that it would be the case, and some evidence points to the contrary. Indeed, since Twitter began suspending jihadist accounts, research by Berger found that the volume of such accounts has indeed diminished, with users “unable to fully regenerate the network if suspensions continue at a consistence pace.”
A second example of how removing jihadist materials could have a real impact involves the take down of two of the most prominent Al Qaeda interactive web forums in 2012 for three weeks by unknown means. A study by researcher Aaron Zelin revealed that during these weeks a third, less popular, forum became slightly more active; however, it did not reach the level of activity of the two downed sites. Also noteworthy: Al Qaeda made no official releases at that time, as it would have been expected to do. Finally, when the two forums went back-up, they were not as heavily used. There are a couple explanations for this: first, the subscribers may have become more paranoid about the possibility that intelligence organizations were surveying their communications; second, realizing the ease at which their forums could be shut down, users started migrating their activities to social media platforms.
That last point brings up another concern raised by those against taking down online jihadist materials: if they are removed from the public realm of social media platforms would there not be yet another migration of their activities—this time towards the much harder to monitor realm of private peer-to-peer communications, such as Skype and Kik? The response is that jihadist already heavily use these forms of private communications. However, public demonstrations of support for jihadism are typically the necessary gateway to subsequent invitations into the private chats, as detailed in the Rolling Stones article. Indeed, while it is possible to network with other jihadists via personal or private channels, it is much harder than doing so online, especially for those living in areas without a known jihadist population. Social media links these disparate, loner extremists into a virtual community that provides them insight and advice, while encouraging further radicalization of their beliefs. As I argued in a past post, rarely are jihadists truly “lone wolves,” even if the networks nourishing them may be virtual.
The final and perhaps most important practical concern about banning jihadist media is its potential utility to intelligence agencies. Even if jihadists think they are not giving away information that could be used against them, they may be doing so unintentionally. For example, based on his Tweets, the FBI alerted the local police in Garland, Texas of the pending attack by Elton Simpson on the Mohammad drawing competition there. On the other hand, catching Tweets that provided direct intelligence of a pending attack is surely an exception, not the rule. In any case, despite the FBI’s warnings, the attack was only thwarted after the first gunshots were fired. Moreover, Tweets from terrorists abroad had provided Simpson with repeated encouragement to carry out an act of terror on American soil and to target the Garland competition in particular (think back to FBI Director Comey’s quote about jihadist social media being the devil on one’s shoulder).
There may be some exceptional cases for which there is a strong intelligence rationale for keeping a jihadist web forum up and running, but that is not the norm and could be controlled for. For example, the French laws banning jihadist online propaganda makes an exception for content which presents a strategic interest to intelligence services.
Lifting the voices of peace and tolerance
In short, there are clear merits to taking down jihadist online propaganda. On the other hand, measures to do so should not be seen as a cure-all that replace other counter-extremism efforts, including a counter-propaganda campaign. As the old adage goes, the best way to combat speech you don’t like is with more speech you do like. Of course, measures are already being taken in this regard. The White House established the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) in September 2011 and recently committed to expanding it. The French Government has also created its own information campaign, notably via its stop-djihadisme website.
The problem with these efforts, however, is that governments are not the best placed at getting out the anti-jihad message. For example, a short, sarcastic counter-jihad video produced by the CSCC for the “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign was called “embarrassing.” Indeed, it was rather amateur compared to some of the more popular ISIS videos. On the other hand, it was at least an attempt by the government to think outside of the box about its counter-jihad communications strategy. The French video on the stop-djihadisme website is slightly better done, but it’s still hard to see how such a short and simplistic video could be sufficiently convincing to at-risk youth.
A better way to combat jihadist messages thus would be via civil society. Indeed, at the Counter Extremism Summit in February, President Obama acknowledged the need to “lift up the voices of tolerance and pluralism within the Muslim community.” And it wasn’t so long ago that social media and the Internet were hailed for lifting these voices in favor of peaceful, democratic change in the “Arab Spring.” The question is why we haven’t seen these same masses coming out to campaign against the hijacking of social media platforms by the new jihadist wave.
Unfortunately, there is reason why violent voices sometimes become the loudest ones. Liberals are less willing to die for the cause and massacre those that disagree with them. But those who espouse violence use it to silence their opponents: for example, the three secular bloggers in Bangladesh who were recently murdered. Worse, some governments don’t distinguish between jihadists and liberals whom they lump together as terrorists (e.g. here and here), further harming the anti-jihadist cause.
On the other hand, in free societies, there are plenty of counter messages to jihadism. But in a world with tons of streams of information from tons of sources, the messenger tends to be more important than the message. For jihadists, along with conspiracy theorists of various stripes, governments and mainstream media are the least trustworthy of sources. That’s why for many youth, a fellow teenager tweeting from Syria that all is super for the Islamic State is infinitely more convincing than anything the government puts out. Thus, while certain government efforts are to be applauded, like when Jordan’s crown prince chaired a UN debate on how youth can combat violent extremism (making him the youngest person to chair a Security Council session), the impact of such measures needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Is the crown prince, a symbol of the government and elitist privilege, really best placed to reach out to the masses on this issue?
Partnerships between governments and civil society may be the best way forward, but it’s always tricky to establish ones that neither discredit the group involved nor embarrass the government backers. Sometimes it suffices for government communications to draw increasing attention to the jihadists’ detractors, especially the eye witness accounts of the brutal reality of life under jihadist control (for example, the “Silently Slaughtering Raqaa” blog). Additional efforts could focus on engaging local law enforcement with ties to the communities of their work.
To be sure, it is easier said than done to find those creative projects that engage communities and local law enforcement to counter-jihad. But, they do exist. For example, police in Kent, England, supported by the UK counter-terror program, “Prevent,” developed a counter-radicalization video game. The game featured simulations of a young man who becomes targeted by online extremists. Following its purported success, there are plans to roll out the game across the UK.
Ultimately, combatting jihadist propaganda requires a coordinated, multi-faceted response—one that should include both coercive measures to take down jihadist materials and diminish their social media presence, as well as programs and policy work to counter their radical messages by exposing their lies, while promoting tolerance and pluralism.
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