Global communications have shifted overwhelmingly to the digital arena in the last ten years and nowhere has this trend been observed more clearly than in the dominance of social media.
During the decade between 2010 and 2020, participation on the major social media platforms–Facebook, Twitter, and Whattsapp–has increased by an estimated 700 percent. While this explosion in online media has produced its benefits, it has also come with a price.
Social media has for years become weaponized by both state actors and militant groups alike. The big social platforms have one of the most effective tools used by extremist groups to further their activities. Similarly, rogue governments utilize social media to spread propaganda and conduct info wars against adversaries. With potentially unlimited audiences and worldwide reach, social media is, for many such actors, a god sent.
Extremism online is one of the strongest examples of how the information sphere can bridge into the real world. In recent years, some of the most infamous acts of radical violence have had a strong link to social media. The Christchurch mosque attack in 2019 for instance which killed 49 people had strong links to social media. Investigations into the shooter showed he was an active user on the 8chan network, a known hotbed for extremist rhetoric, specifically anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant posts. In a sick twist to an already horrific story, the perpetrator live streamed the killings. The video was made available on both Facebook and Twitter, and spread like wildfire before being taken down by administrators. The 28-year-old man responsible for the shootings also disseminated a 74 page manifesto via social networks, a document that blatantly promoted xenophobia and racist violence.
The use of digital networks is not by any stretch limited to the far-right. Jihadists were among the first extremist groups to use these platforms as a means to promote their cause and even organize attacks. One of the terrorists in the 2015 Paris Attack, one Bilal Hadfi, used social media extensively to express his support for militant Islam. According to reports produced following the attack, Hadfi used social media platforms, especially Facebook, to contact extremist groups such as the Katibat al-Battar al Libi, a Libyan-rooted offshoot of the Islamic State. Groups like ISIS have invested heavily in recruitment efforts via social media. As experts have pointed out, online recruitment can continue to succeed even as these groups lose territory and power in the real world.
Beyond ideologically motivated violence are the aggressive geopolitical uses of social media.
Countries ranging from Russia to North Korea, to Iran have all used orchestrated social media schemes to intimidate enemies, influence political processes, and even as platforms to launch cyber attacks.
With the rise in awareness of social networks’ potential power, governments the world over have poured resources into combating its effects.
For nearly a decade, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have diligently sought out the accounts of ‘cyber jihadists’ and ‘keyboard warriors’ on the social platforms and chatrooms through which they operate. The prevalent approach has been that of detect and destroy, the most understandable reaction to a new and dangerous threat. However, the flaws of this strategy are becoming increasingly apparent to governments around the world. All this, despite the apparent full cooperation of big tech companies.
New cross disciplinary research in the social media and global security arenas have shown the potential of a new paradigm for the digital sphere. Instead of viewing malicious social media accounts as targets for elimination, law enforcement should engage with them as sources of intelligence gathering and points of manipulation and enemy vulnerability.
Indeed, this mentality is drawn from the approach within the civilian sector, in which marketers and social influencers capitalize on accounts belonging to ‘adversaries’ to monitor their activity and draw conclusions regarding their intentions for the future. Already within the many governmental agencies, a subtle shift from the ‘shut-it-down’ mentality’ to one of ‘listen-and-learn’. Instead of actively shuttering known extremist accounts and websites, intelligence agencies and even non-governmental actors are passively observing and analyzing their content.
Social media specialist and political power broker, Joel Zamel, is a leading force from the private sector who runs campaigns for Western governments to counter online extremism. He is firm believer that online influence campaigns are not just for brand awareness or election influence – but to help quash extremist voices and promote voices of tolerance and peace. He says that social media capabilities, “are particularly effective in exposing and discrediting violent extremists and their ideologies. I have long argued that governments should make broader and better use of these capabilities. They may be the key to defeating terrorists on the ideological level, as well as disincentivizing mass shootings and lone wolf attacks.” Influential figures like Zamel are key to governments’ counter extremist strategies, not just for operational capabilities, but for contributing multi-stakeholder campaigns via private sector efforts.
However, there is still much more room for improvement and fully applying these methods. The good news for law enforcement and national security professionals is that these skills already exist in abundance within the private sector. What is required is a bit of non-conventional thinking and openness to bringing these skills into the fold of conventional national security strategy and procedure.
Taking a new look at the role social media plays in promoting extremism can open new avenues for countering sectarian and religious violence. But this approach does require incorporating a new field of expertise, namely the men and women with a firm grasp of how social platforms and digital networks operate. Taking up this new paradigm will allow social media operations to become an effective tool and powerful force multiplier in the global fight against radicalization.