Combating extremism on social media

The invention of the internet has been a groundbreaking technology, with its powerful reach, ability to share knowledge, and giving voice to those who had previously been voiceless. However, the internet has been identified as a tool which is being used by dark forces to decimate their messages to millions, and even billions, of people across the globe. Racists, anti-Semites, and hate groups have mostly had free reign on the information super highway, while arms dealers, drug dealers, pedophiles, and terrorists have all found a platform to conduct various nefarious aims on the lesser patrolled dark net.

Dr. Michael Barak, a senior researcher and project manager at the Institute for Counter Terrorism of Lauder School of Government Diplomacy and Strategy, at the IDC in Herzliya, said terrorist groups like ISIS, al Qaeda, and Hamas have found great success pursuing their aims online. Such groups, according to Barak, “attribute considerable efforts to the cyber field, seeing it as a central platform for indoctrination, waging psychological warfare against their enemies, challenging the enemy’s narratives, strengthening the self-esteem of members of the Jihadi community by emphasizing the virtues of the community, and collecting intelligence information on the enemy.”

It is estimated that roughly 30,000 foreign fighters joined the ranks of ISIS in the group’s battle to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. A sizable number of them are believed to have been recruited via elaborate, complex, and well-funded online recruitment campaigns carried out by the Jihadist group. Barak paints a picture of certain vulnerable Muslims living in the West, feeling isolated due to various social and psychological reasons, and in turn vulnerable to the advances they receive online. “They have an opportunity to fix their situation, to add meaning to their lives. And this is by immigrating to Iraq and Syria and other Jihadi arenas. To contribute to the efforts of the Islamic Umma, to fight against these corrupt regimes and corrupt societies, to change the reality.”

To ensure maximum reach, groups like ISIS have produced tailored messages in various languages including English, German, French, Russian, and even Hebrew to Israel. According to Israel Channel 2, the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) recently discovered 20 Israeli citizens who had joined the terrorist group—two of them were born Jewish but converted to Islam. Despite the measures taken to eradicate such content and limit its exposure, it is still relatively easy to find. People who are looking for information, according to Barak, can still “obtain the knowledge of how to build explosives in their mom’s kitchen, how to build Molotov cocktails, and how to increase the effects of stabbings.”

Social media sites like Google’s Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter have been slow to respond to calls asking for extremist content to be taken down. Governments, and of late, NGOs, have begun taking an active role in the monitoring the ‘wild west’ internet. This may significantly help in carrying out the massive task of monitoring various internet users’ activities. The organization They Cant for example, encourages something called ‘crowd reporting,’ which empower users of various social media tools to report videos or content that clearly violate the terms of services of these sites.

Pressure like the kind Google received earlier this summer, when several top corporations stopped running their ads on Youtube upon learning that these ads were often posted over hateful content, was another effective step. “If you want to improve the actions and responses of these platforms like Facebook, you need to put financial sanctions on them,” Barak asserts. As certain barriers and protections are implemented on these larger platforms—by blocking the effectiveness of disseminating dangerous contents—other newer, oft-times not as secure programs, pop up. Terrorist groups have recently become acquainted with the likes of WhatsApp, Google Plus or Telegram to communicate without the interference or concern of being monitored.

Barak is also helping to develop more proactive steps in detailing the effectiveness of counter-messaging. This consists of Muslim scholars working to challenge the ISIS and al Qaeda’s narratives by claiming that these groups’ ideologies are bankrupt (in opposition to the messaging of these groups, attempting to lower the credibility of various governments and leaders worldwide). Imams Online and al Witania are just a few examples of this activism; with al Azhar in Egypt now receiving funding for a special unit that is responsible for monitoring Jihadist propaganda online in Arabic. But again, it’s a constant battle of legitimacy, as terror groups accuse these counter-narrative-disseminating Muslim scholars as collaborators with the enemy.

Dr. Barak says the fight against radical and hateful ideology is a very difficult and complicated fight. “This is like a race, a competition between a cat and mouse,” Barak says. If options close on one platform due to effective policing and monitoring, many terrorist groups can adapt and develop a fondness for another. He encourages civilian society to be more active in policing the online communities, with the hopes that it will not take an entire generation before this phenomenon is taken seriously.

About the Author
Danny Swibel is a Tel Aviv based reporter and analyst with They Can't, an organization that tracks and fights to remove anti-Semitic & extremist content online. He researches issues related to Iraq, Syria, Islamist groups, as well as security issues related to the Israel/Palestinian conflict. He was an analyst in the counter-terrorism firm Terrogence and reporter at i24News. He holds an MA from Tel Aviv University's Middle Eastern Studies Program.