The Use of Social Media for Terrorism
Abstract: This study goes through the ways in which terrorists have been exploiting social media. It explains how terrorist propaganda has been littered all over the internet. It explains how terrorist groups are recruiting new fighters on social media with special interest on westerners. The study also goes through how the increased encryption of social media platforms have made it ideal for terrorists to communicate. Lastly, the study discusses how terrorists have been capitalizing on social media to fulfill their attention seeking goals. The study also brings to light some complementary functions of the dark web to achieve goals that are unattainable on social media. The study ends by suggesting aggressive measures that can be taken by users, governments and social media platforms to bring an end to terrorism on both social media and the dark web.
Over the last decade, there has been a sharp increase in the use of social media by the world. Facebook boasts of a user base of approximately 2 billion people while Twitter and Instagram heading towards getting half that number of users. The main reason for the establishment of all these social media networks has been to provide social connections. Facebook is now on an ambitious plan to connect the whole world. It aims at doing this through drones that will supply the internet to unreached places in third world countries. Social media networks have had many advantages to internet users. They have enabled them to stay in touch with loved ones in better and cheaper ways than the traditional telephony. They have also been used for marketing purposes since they bring together a wide range of consumers. The users have been profiled by the social media platforms and companies can now simply advertise to specific niches of consumers all over the world. Lastly, these platforms have enabled users to get information within the blink of an eye. Traditional media were associated with delays as news moved slowly from one media outlet to another. Today, anything posted on social media gets to other users in real time.
However, a new set of problems has erupted amidst these positive uses of social media. Terrorist groups have decided to establish themselves and make known their activities through these platforms. They are taking advantage of the interconnectedness of the world right now through such platforms and are using this to further their interests. Attacks have been live streamed to social media users as they happen by the terrorists themselves. Recordings of executions and inhumane acts have been leaked to millions of users on these platforms. Advertisements for recruitment have been flooded on social media. Terrorists’ blind beliefs have been crafted to sound appealing to oblivious social media users. Some users have been wowed by this and have made a dangerous move to join terrorist groups. Social media has also provided a new breeding ground for Muslim extremists through easily accessible radicalization materials.
In the last few years, the world has witnessed a growing use of social media by terrorists. There have been attacks that were either motivated by social media or their impacts amplified by being disseminated on the platforms. In June 2016, former US President, Obama, acknowledged that an attack done in a gay club in Orlando was caused by online extremism . He said that the attacker, who came to be identified as Omar Mateen, was inspired by so-called jihadist material that was found on Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks. Even more chilling were the messages that Mateen had posted on his Facebook account before committing the attack. He said that his attack was in support of the Islamic State terrorist group and that the US had to be prepared for even more attack . Investigations further revealed that Mateen had multiple Facebook accounts that he used to make posts about ISIL/DAESH. The post before the attack which was addressed to the US told its citizens to taste the vengeance of ISIL/DAESH. It was confirmed that Mateen had made searches on his phone about the attack that he had committed during the three-hour standoff with the police . This was most probably to check to what extent the attack had gone viral on the internet.
Shortly after the Orlando attack, there was another social media influenced terrorist attack in Paris, France. Policemen and his spouse were killed by an extremist called Abballa . Apparently, Abballa live streamed a twelve-minute video to Facebook while still inside the policeman’s home. He revealed that he committed the heinous act in response to a call from senior ISIL/DAESH leaders to followers in Europe and US . The followers of ISIL/DAESH had been informed to unleash terror during Ramadan. Facebook quickly took down the video and did not issue any comments about it saying that it was under active investigations. This was however after it had been accessed by many people during the live stream. There then followed claims that Facebook was struggling to stop such kind of crimes from being shared on its network, especially if they were being live streamed .
There have been many other attacks that have been facilitated significantly by multiple social media platforms. Terrorist groups have been using the same media platforms to significantly magnify the impacts of terrorist acts. Social media has been used to accelerate and multiply acts of terror. It has also transformed and evolved terrorism activities.
2. The reasons why terrorists are using social media
There are many motivations for terrorists to harness the power of social media to support their activities. It all boils down to the fact that social media platforms have a broader audience than any other type of media. Therefore, they can easily reach out to millions if not billions if they use social media platforms effectively. The following are the discussions of some of the reasons why:
2.1 Spreading terrorist propaganda
Many organizations today use social media to advertise their products and to encourage people to remain loyal to their brands. Terror groups have copied this and have been using it to take their propaganda to the masses and to make them support their activities . Groups such as ISIL/DAESH have consistently used Twitter to spread their propaganda. They make posts that support their ideologies and possibly attract people to either joining or supporting the group. In most times, they will go on explaining how some countries have either committed atrocities against other countries. They will also attack poor countries for supporting the ideologies of these nations. They will claim that their aim is to either bring vengeance or ensure equality. They tailor their messages to seem focused on bringing a societal change that countries have failed. They claim to establish peace by imposing ‘peaceful’ religion laws that will ensure that there is justice. A person unaware of the grave attacks that these groups commit with complete disregard to human life might be brainwashed to believe in their propaganda.
These terror groups normally have many accounts to spread their messages. In 2016, Twitter had to bring down over 124,000 user accounts that were linked to ISIL/DAESH or were found to be spreading ISIL/DAESH propaganda. Today, the group still has massive influence online and it seems that they bring up new accounts as quickly as the old ones are blocked . They continually make and post professional quality video adverts and pictures that always try to convince the audience that so-called jihad is a worthy cause. The group portrays on social media accounts that its caliphate is an Islamic paradise. ISIL/DAESH has however continuously uploaded gruesome videos of bombings and executions. They have used this to spread terror and fear messages to innocent people. This has also been done to normalize and glorify violence for its followers.
2.2 Recruiting foreign fighters
There have been reports of people leaving their home countries, including the United States, to go to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL/DAESH. It is estimated that ISIL/DAESH has received over 30,000 of these people that have traveled from every corner of the world to live in the promised Islamic paradise promised by the ISIL/DAESH propaganda videos . A lot more have left their homes to join other groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram. These groups are using social media as a platform to radicalize people and brainwash them with their extremist ideas. The major concern is when these fairly normal people have started going back home. The reason is that most terror groups such as ISIL/DAESH are losing territory and the radicalized fighters are being told to go back home but with various missions. Some are to radicalize more people in their home countries while others are to carry out terrorist attacks. Terror groups are bringing terror to people’s doorsteps with their foreign fighters. ISIL/DAESH, in particular, is discouraging people from traveling to Syria, but it is recruiting them on social media platforms.
Recruiters of these terror groups are also hunting on social media networks for potential followers. They are good at determining what kinds of persons can easily be brainwashed and radicalized. They have employed a number of tactics to gain as many followers as possible. The initial ways of contact involve friend request, follows and messages on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. From there, the recruiters are able to slip in their radicalization messages slowly to the minds of their targets. It is therefore not necessarily that all followers of terror groups reached out to the group’s social media networks and asked to join. There is an army of recruiters for these groups online that is working towards enlisting more people to their caliphates.
Profiles of young and beautiful women are being used to lure in potential recruits3. These accounts are being used to update a target group of potential members of the ‘good’ lives that ISIL/DAESH fighters are living in a utopic world located between Syria and Iraq. They are presenting that ISIL/DAESH territory in such a positive light that it appears as the best place to be. It is being showcased as a place where one can live a meaningful and purposeful life in a deluded Islamic state ruled by Islamic laws. They claim that it is a so-called five-star jihad. In 2015, as part of the five-star lifestyle, the group promised its members that it was going to reopen a luxury hotel in Mosul. Other pictures showed ISIL/DAESH girls posing on a fancy BMW while wielding AK-47 rifles .
ISIL/DAESH recruiters are also using messengers to stay in touch with those that want to travel all the way to Syria. There are reports that the recruiters issue brochures detailing the journey to ISIL/DAESH territory, the logistics of getting there, what to carry and where to meet a guide in Turkey. This has prompted the Turkish government to be more vigil to prevent people from sneaking into Syria through its borders. The New York Times reported in 2015 that half of the members of ISIL/DAESH were foreigners . An estimated 4000 of these were said to be coming from Western countries. The infamous so-called Jihadi John was himself a British Muslim and gained fame when he appeared in execution videos . The group is, therefore, targeting foreigners. It has been said that most of the dangerous radical extremists claiming affiliation with Islam in the group are western recruits. Most of them join as new Muslim converts searching for adventure and wishing to live in the promised utopia.
The extensive use of social media for recruitment has so far only been witnessed in ISIL/DAESH. Previously, when Al-Qaeda was the most feared terror group, access to information limited and even recruitment of new members was qualificatory. Al-Qaeda has more restrictive practices and even turns down new members. The group even has a special rigorous vetting process for foreigners. There are obstacles that it has put in the recruitment process. These are the obstacles that ISIL/DAESH removed in its more aggressive recruitment strategy that span to social media.
2.3 Communicating more effectively
Terror groups are using social media platforms for communication purposes . This is because they are safer than phone calls and SMSs. An expose by a former NSA staff said that the US was actively monitoring the phone calls made in multiple countries. The US government was also said to be going through the emails and SMSs of its citizens . This shows that terrorist groups are unlikely to use these types of media because they are actively monitored. It is also easy to locate the senders and receivers of information over such media. Terrorist groups need more secure media. They also need to be able to reach out to many people at a go.
Social media comes as a great solution to all these communication problems. Some platforms promise users of end-to-end encryption of messages especially after the US government was found to be snooping into everyone’s private messages . Terrorists are using this kind of security assurance to communicate without the fear of being tracked or of having their communication monitored. Several attackers have been found to be in communication with ISIL/DAESH leaders through highly encrypted media such as Telegram. They have used these to get instructions on places to attack and when to do so. Communication about the supply of ammunition and explosives is also done on these platforms.
2.4 Seeking for attention
Social media platforms have also played a big role for terror groups to get attention from the world. Before social media, terror groups relied on traditional media to get attention. The problem was that they were not in total control of such media as their stories had to pass through editors before they got reported. There has however been a long relationship between terrorists and media. Terrorists exploit media to further their messages and goals to a wide audience. Terrorists rely on one thing to gain attention; conducting acts of terrorism and aggression on civilians. For years, they have used this technique . This is because it is significantly difficult for such groups to make weapons capable of toppling governments and enabling them to seize power and establish their own rule. They only have enough to spread panic by hurting or killing a few people. After committing such acts, they normally want their intentions to be amplified and spread to a wide audience. Traditionally, these included newspapers, TV and radio stations.
For long, these media have unwillingly been used by terrorists to convey messages . Even today, if a terrorist attack happens, mass media organizations will scramble to cover it and they will repeat it over and over. This is what terrorists rely on to remain relevant; the trauma that they cause to be broadcasted repeatedly to a global audience. They have been relying on publicity to thrive . Social media has now given terrorist groups control over what the public perceives them to be. They no longer have to rely on getting attention from traditional mass media. With social media, groups like ISIL/DAESH are making periodic releases showing their members training, executing people and even committing terrorist attacks. They are getting their content to the world in an unfiltered way.
The use of social media has however been occasioned with some challenges. Social media is not entirely secure even for terrorists who want to protect the anonymity of their members, supporters and especially financiers. Several planed attacks have been thwarted after law enforcement agencies gathered intelligence from social media before the execution of attacks. Some wealthy financiers of terrorist groups have been exposed. There have been many information ‘leaks’ from social media thus making it inadequate to fully support terrorist activities. Therefore, terrorists have been looking for a more secure platform that among many other things is completely sealed and is very difficult to compromise the anonymity of the parties involved. They have adopted the dark web to fill the gaps present in social media platforms.
3. The use of the dark web by terrorists
Governments have been increasing surveillance efforts over telephony systems and social media. Twitter is currently banning hundreds of thousands of accounts that could be linked with terrorist groups. Facebook has been taking down execution videos right after they are posted by terrorists. Security agencies have been trying to get back entries to some social media accounts to identify the owners. This has prompted terrorist groups to seek safer and anonymous alternatives to continue communicating and transacting. Terrorists have evolved with all these new concerns and are now exploiting the power of the dark web. They are using it to complement their activities on other platforms. They are using social media for recruit and spreading their propaganda to the world and the dark web for more secretive communication and transactions. The in-depth discussions below explain more on how the dark web is used by terrorists.
3.1 Planning attacks
When terrorists plan to attack, they are cautious to ensure that information does not leak out. If information concerning their planned attacks gets to law enforcement agencies, there is a high likelihood that the attacks will be thwarted. For some reasons such as ease of identification and tracking on social media, they try to plan on other more secure platforms. They have turned to the power of anonymity of the dark web. The dark web has highly secure platforms through which terrorists can make their plans. It is riddled with encryptions that make it significantly hard for law enforcement agencies to track down the IP addresses used by its users.
Though it was not originally meant for this purpose, the dark web has seen many other illegal activities being conducted through it. In 2015, after years of tracking, law enforcement agencies were able to crack down and arrest the leader of the largest drug syndicate on the dark web. The leader managed an online shop called The Silkroad where people would buy drugs and have them delivered at their doorstep . In this context, the most important components of this online drug trade are the ordering and delivery mechanisms. They were totally secure and reliable. This means that terrorists are probably using the same type of mechanisms to plan for terror attacks. They probably have their own sites on the dark web where members can log in to receive briefings concerning attacks. The French Interior Minister said in 2016 that the masterminds of terrorist attacks in Europe used the deep web to communicate through highly encrypted messages and using anonymous identities . The delivery system of Silkroad also shows that it is possible that these terrorists have reliable ways of getting armament and explosives to their members in other countries. The Silkroad had an efficient delivery network that got even got drugs to kids through mailboxes . It is, therefore, possible that terrorists have their own dark web delivery systems.
3.2 Funding and business transactions
Terrorist groups receive funding from many sources. Some of these sources are people that have been tricked into believing the terrorist propaganda. There is a dark web page called “Fund the Islamic Struggle without Leaving a trace” where people can go and anonymously donate for so-called Jihad. There have been rumors that some oil-rich countries in Middle East Asia have also been key funders of these Islamic extremist terror groups . Large terrorist groups also run as businesses in order to make money to help them stay relevant. Some terror groups are in control of areas with resources such as oil. They can sell it for cheap and get funds to buy weapons or compensate their fighters.
Terrorists also do kidnapping and request for the payment of some ransom money. Others are in charge of drug shipping channels and make insanely huge amounts of money to allow the movement of drugs. They are also contracted by wealthy investors for assassinations or to destabilize competitors. Lastly, they sell body organs harvested from captives and antiquities stolen from the cities that they take over . All these activities require money to be moved in a secure and hard to trace way. There is an anonymous currency available on the dark web called Bitcoin. It was heavily used for the drug trade on Silkroad and it is still being used for these kinds of terrorist dealings. Transactions made via Bitcoins are hard to trace and thus do not often put the identities of the senders of the money at risk .
3.3 Acquiring weaponry and fake passports
The dark web is a hive of illegal activities. There are dark web stores that specialize in selling and supplying guns, ammunition, and explosives. Investigations into the Paris attacks of 2015 showed that the weapons that were used in the shooting were bought from a dark web store. The supplier was identified to be a German citizen operating on the dark web with the username DW Guns. This is only one of the many instances where terrorists have bought guns from the dark web. In 2016, former US President, Barrack Obama, said that terrorists had bought radioactive isotopes from dark web brokers . He was worried that they could fly the radioactive material over populated places using drones. Terrorists are also using the dark web to buy fake passports. There are dark web brokers that readily make and deliver fake passports for people wishing to illegally enter countries such as the US and UK . The transactions are done online, powered by Bitcoin. The brokers also have reliable delivery mechanisms of ensuring that the passports get to the terrorists.
The paper has done an in-depth research on the ways that social media is being exploited by terrorists to achieve various goals. The paper has explained how the world is now interconnected by social media allowing information to flow faster than it used to do through traditional media. It has then shown how this interconnectedness and fast flow of information could be used by terrorists. It has given a background of two terrorist attacks that caught the attention of the world that were in one way or another facilitated by social media. In one of the attacks, the former US president acknowledged that it was due to the radicalization of the perpetrator on social media. The other attack was even more chilling since the perpetrator streamed a 12-minute video clip on YouTube after the attack. The paper has brought to light most of the ways through which social media is being used by terrorists. It has explained how terrorists are using social media to spread their propaganda. They have been using it to spread their ideologies in sugar coated adverts aimed at deluding people into believing in their blind cause.
The paper has also detailed how social media is extensively being used to recruit new fighters into terrorist groups. ISIL/DAESH is one of the groups that is capitalizing on Facebook and Twitter to reach out to vulnerable people and deluding them into joining the caliphate. It has repeatedly called on all ‘true’ believers of Islam to join it and remarkably many people have traveled to Syria to join ISIL/DAESH. Their recruitment strategy is working since reports show that 40% of ISIL/DAESH militants are foreigners. Social media is also being used for communication. This is because phone calls and SMSs are easily monitored while at the same time, social media platforms are becoming hard for law enforcement agencies to keep an eye on due to end to end encryption of messages.
The paper has also identified that terrorists are using social media to seek for attention. It has explained the relationship between terrorism and media. It has traced back this relationship to traditional media and explained how social media has given terrorists a new avenue to gain attention from. Terrorists are using it to show its fighters brandishing weapons, to stream attacks, to showcase the ‘paradise’ that fighters are living in and to show gruesome executions. Lastly, the paper has explained how other online services have been used to complement social media. The paper has explained a few ways that terrorists are using the dark web. It has gone through how it is being used for planning attacks, getting funding, conducting transactions and acquiring weapons. The paper ends with some recommendations on how the exploitation of social media by terrorists can be controlled. These are:
a) Algorithms to take down terrorist-related materials from social media
The exploitation of social media by terrorists can be stopped through a few collaborative measures done by users, social media platforms, and governments. One of the measures that could be taken is by encouraging social media companies to build algorithms to identify terrorist propaganda posts and remove them from all platforms. Social media companies have been spending a lot of resources on developing the algorithms to mine data from users. However, they have not been doing the same to come up with algorithms to mine for terrorist related posts and videos. With the right amount of pressure from both users and governments, these platforms can come up with tools that can be used to detect terrorist propaganda, remove the posts and suspend the associated accounts .
Three lawsuits have already been filed by some victims of terrorist acts against multiple social networks for allowing terrorist material on their platforms that contained the murder of their friends and family. The suits have had one thing in common, they are asking why social media platforms have not put a tenth of the efforts that they use for advertising towards barring terrorists from posting some sensitive material . There are emerging fingerprinting technologies that can be used to flag video clips related to terrorism. These technologies could be embedded into the codes for uploading videos so as to prevent the uploading of all terrorism-related material . The advent of artificial intelligence has made it easier for systems to think on their own. AI and machine learning should be incorporated into the sharing, uploading or publishing functionalities of all social media to flag off any terrorist-related material .
There have been successful implementations of other technologies that were used to hunt for any child pornography on the internet. A tool called PhotoDNA detected any material that contained child pornography and it was a turning point in the war against the same . This tool was used a decade ago and with the current technologies today, it should be easy to come up with an analysis tool to take down any terrorism-related material. This might prevent terrorists from littering social media with their adverts and videos of executions or attacks.
b) Encouraging users not to share terrorism-related material
Another measure that can be taken is for users to be encouraged not to share any material that they may come across related to terrorism. When groups such as ISIL/DAESH upload their videos on social media, they go viral because of the users. Users share these videos with other users who send the clips to many other people. Governments and social media platforms should warn people against such actions since they give attention and fame to terrorist groups. The platforms could come up with an account suspension rule for all accounts found to have shared terrorist-related material. Governments could come up with regulatory frameworks to hold users accountable for their actions on social media. The government could make it a crime to share videos from terrorists as this is against the good of the public. Users should be encouraged to report such videos so that the social media platforms can take them down easily. This will greatly reduce the number of people that get to access material from terrorist groups and in turn, this will rob attention and relevance from the terrorists.
c) Indexing the dark web
Lastly, since the paper highlighted the use of the dark web by terrorists, there is one sure way that this can be prevented. The dark web should be indexed at the very list to identify the sites that operate in it. Most of these sites have been promoting terrorism either by selling weapons and fake passports or by providing very secure platforms for terrorists to communicate. Indexing of the dark web will help authorities know these sites and effectively shut them. DARPA, an American defense research agency claims that it has a tool that can be used to kill terrorism activity on the dark web. The agency developed a tool called MEMEX that was used to monitor human trafficking on the dark web. It was effective against hunting down all human trafficking dark sites and can be used again to bring down terrorism-related sites as well.
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