While online forums and websites have long been staples in jihadists’ organization and recruitment efforts, a new study by New America Foundation’s Aaron Zelin has found that they are also beginning to embrace social media platforms, such Twitter. In order to combat this latest development in the War on Terror, the US government will likely need to adopt a two-pronged strategy: create more engaging social media messages that can effectively counter the jihadists’ highly emotional, viral appeals and use data mining techniques to monitor supporters’ account activity.
For jihadists, Twitter can be an extremely helpful tool in the “development of an insurgent consciousness,” which occurs when situations or issues are framed in a way that inspires a certain group to mobilize (Schroeder et al, 2012). Twitter’s design is perfect for this purpose, as its 140-character limit creates messages similar to bumper stickers. Tweets serve as “ideological snippets” that are easy to understand, frame grievances in memorable ways and ultimately resonate with their target audiences (Schroeder et al, 2012). Twitter can attract politically radicalized recruits, bring in donations, organize the logistics of meetings and attacks, and garner wider audiences for propaganda. While jihadists have been using YouTube to upload instructional videos, memorials, etc., for quite some time, Twitter makes it faster and easier to share these videos with audiences beyond their core networks. Although older communication methods, such as forums, are expected to remain critical for jihadist networks to share more confidential information, Zelin (2013) expects Twitter to continue to grow as a recruitment tool, as an avenue for breaking news and as a back-up communication method when forums are shut down by opposing governments.
Jihadists’ move to Twitter is still in its early stages, and the accounts have low numbers of followers when compared to famous brands or celebrities (Ungerleider, 2013). For example, British propagandist Anjem Choudary has more than 2,800 followers, while Yemen’s militant news agency has just over 4,100. Limited internet access in base countries, such as Somalia and Afghanistan, has been credited with the jihadists’ slow adoption of social media, but the increasing prevalence of internet cafes and soaring cell phone usage are making social media strategies increasingly viable.
Even in this relatively early stage, jihadist groups, such as al Qaeda, have had remarkable success in generating viral content, largely due to the shocking nature of what they post, such as videos of American soldiers killing civilians (Wallen, 2013). Their videos spread like wildfire online and often challenge the American narrative of what’s happening on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, while generating support for their movement. As a result, the US response strategy must include the creation of its own viral content that can combat the messages and videos being shared by al Qaeda. In order to generate its own viral messages, the government needs to generate either positive or negative “high-arousal emotions,” which are associated with shocking, humorous, emotional or impressive content that attracts users and urges them to pass the content on (Wallen, 2013). While these emotions are rarely associated with government communications, they are possible. For example, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experienced remarkable success online with its Zombie Preparedness Campaign, as did NASA with a wide variety of impressive space images and videos.
While the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications works to respond to jihadists’ content online with tweets, Facebook posts, videos and more (Wallen, 2013), the government may need to increase the emotional appeals of its responses to effectively counter their work. For example, Mark Davis, co-author of Digital Assassination, has suggested that the US government work with creative, private companies to “deploy humor as a weapon to ridicule al Qaeda” and turn the viral nature of social media against them. Davis’ idea is certainly intriguing, but the US government would need to proceed with extreme caution, lest critics accuse it of making light of an extremely deadly and serious threat to the nation’s security.
While the jihadist migration to Twitter has its challenges, it has also created some major opportunities for the US government’s counterterrorism units. Social network analysis allows the US government to better identify key members of jihadists networks, determine which individuals are worth tracking and improve general knowledge about the network’s ideology, strategies and actions (Everton, 2012). For example, the recently developed NodeXL program can scrape social media data from organizations such as the Taliban and the FARC in real-time and create complex maps of interactions between individual network members (Everton, 2012). However, these strategies come with risks as well. Monitoring people’s social media activity, especially if they are US citizens, raises a myriad of concerns related to privacy and the freedom of speech, and some measures will have to be taken to protect these rights.
In conclusion, it is clear that the US government must evolve alongside jihadist organizations in order to effectively fight terrorism in the social media age. A successful strategy will likely need to combine some form of data mining and tracking with more engaging, persuasive anti-terrorism content. This will allow the government to monitor current threats while dissuading potential recruits and sympathizers on the same platforms jihadists are using to further their goals.
Author’s Note: While there is some controversy regarding the use of “jihadist,” this was the preferred term used in the Zelin and Ungerleider articles that served as the foundation for the blog post. Ungerleider explains the thought process behind this decision as follows: “Rather than using the loaded term ‘terrorists,’ the study refers to jihadists–a category which also encompasses propagandists and ideologists for various armed Islamist militant organizations worldwide.”
Davis, Mark W. “Use Social Media to Combat Terrorism.” US News 15 Sept. 2012.
Everton, Sean. “State of the Art: Contemplating the Future of Social Media, Dark Networks and Counterinsurgency.”Combating Terrorism Exchange 2.4 (2012): 69-74.
Schroeder, Rob, Sean Everton, and Russel Shepherd. “Mining Twitter Data from the Arab Spring.” Combating Terrorism Exchange 2.4 (2012): 56-65.
Ungerleider, Neal. “How Jihadists Use Twitter, And Soon Even Instagram.” Fast Company 6 Feb. 2013.
Wallin, Matthew. “The Challenges of the Internet and Social Media in Public Diplomacy.” American Security Project Feb. 2013.
Zelin, Aaron, and Richard R. Fellow. “The State of Global Jihad Online.” New America Foundation (2013).