These days, you no longer need to fly halfway across the world to join your chosen extremist cause. You can be a jihadi from behind your screen, contributing to the effort with propaganda or cyber attacks.
The public profile of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) and their online supporters should disabuse any notion that modern extremist groups are technological illiterates hiding in caves. When it comes to propaganda, the ‘media mujahideen’ is native to the digital age: using the net to evade censorship and keep their message always online. As a result, a new approach to countering their efforts is necessary. The current plan seems to be an ineffective game of whack-a-mole, as we try to remove individual videos or user accounts one-by-one. Instead, we need to disrupt their ability to promote their message at a strategic level.
Although IS has been consistently marked out as a new departure in jihadist use of technology, in truth it has evolved over the last few years to adapt to information-rich and social media environments, all the while maintaining strong links to, and ideological coherence with, the content produced during earlier conflicts, reaching back to the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Since at least 2011, the physical ‘frontier’ of jihadist violence has expanded to encompass the virtual front – with professional media teams embedded with fighting units as well as the global network of media supporters, being encouraged to take part in the media jihad.
there is an increasing number of social network sites and platforms that are based on distributed servers and therefore difficult to censor: partly driven by legitimate concerns about privacy following Snowden’s revelations. All this, of course, will continue to get quicker and more reliable: that’s the way of things. In the global game of whack-a-mole, not only do more moles keep popping up, more of them are out of reach.
So we should use take-downs and account suspensions strategically, focusing on how the removal of accounts impacts on the ability of the network as a whole to operate – rather than looking at their individual profile. To do that, we need to invest in genuinely collaborative research capacity to produce open-source intelligence which combines expertise in jihadist history, ideology and language with big data techniques.
And that, in turn, will require far greater use of large-scale network analysis to track the flow of information through jihadist communities online, to figure out which, if any, moles are worth whacking.
And most importantly of all, this all needs to be shared with people already out there trying to confront the jihadists online, who can speak with greatest knowledge and authority on the subject. In the end, it won’t be governments or social media networks alone that play the decisive role in beating terrorist propaganda.
This is an excerpt from:
Jamie Bartlett and Ali Fisher, How to beat the media mujahideen, DEMOS Quarterly, Issue #5, Winter 2014/15
The full article is available here.