By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
Social media platforms enable billions of people to communicate worldwide. They are free, easy to use, and allow videos and written messages to be easily shared with a global audience.
One group that is particularly noteworthy for exploiting social media’s communication possibilities is terrorist organizations. According to the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), terrorists use social media sites to recruit and radicalize followers, to acquire funding, and to plan and execute acts of terrorism.
Social Media Sites Allow Terrorist Propaganda to Quickly Reach a Global Audience
Social media enables terrorists to spread their propaganda quickly to a global audience, which is effective in reaching sympathizers. For instance, terrorist organizations use platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to post content. These organizations also create sponsored accounts on these websites so that they can offer news releases and videos to their followers.
The speed at which content is shared through social media enables terrorist organizations groups to disseminate a large amount of content much quicker than by using traditional media outlets. For example:
- The Islamic State (ISIS) uses Twitter and YouTube to compel foreign fighters to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
- Al-Shabaab used Twitter to narrate an attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall as it was occurring.
Similarly, lone-wolf attacker Brenton Tarrant live-streamed a mass terrorism event in March 2019. He killed 51 worshippers at a church in New Zealand.
Social Media Sites Make It Easy for Terrorists to Spread Misinformation and Inflict Fear
In addition to member recruitment and spreading propaganda, terrorist organizations use social media sites to spread misinformation and inflict fear in their targets or enemies. One of the primary goals of terrorists is to incite fear.
For example, the horrific terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001 killed almost 3,000 people and also incited fear in millions of people. Social media enables terrorists to exacerbate that fear in big populations.
Why Don’t Social Media Sites Detect the Activities of Terrorist Organizations?
Terrorist organizations take multiple steps to evade social media website controls that would flag their content or prevent it from being posted. For example, terrorists mix their material with content from legitimate news outlets and embed their terrorist propaganda within the content. Also, they exploit the gaps that exist in automated and manual moderation programs to create tens of thousands of views of their propaganda and flood the comments section of sites to evade detection.
Additional strategies that terrorists use to get their content posted on social media include:
- Separating text with strange punctuation to evade keyword searches
- Blurring their logos through Facebook’s video effects
- Using many hacked accounts
Law Enforcement Can Use Social Media to Combat Terrorist Organizations
However, the use of social media by terrorist organizations provides an investigative opportunity for counterterrorism. Information posted online by terrorist organizations can often be tracked to specific IP addresses. In addition, these sites provide investigators with information regarding the terrorists’ location and that information can be used for other investigative purposes.
INTERPOL uses social media sites in its counterterrorism efforts by conducting enhanced identification and detection efforts and utilizing facial recognition technology to analyze posts. For instance, INTERPOL used social media content to identify possible witnesses to a 2017 terrorist attack in London and a 2019 attack at a hotel complex in Kenya.
Social media platforms have a very important role to play in combating terrorism by stopping the transmission of terrorist content on their platforms. Law enforcement agencies and technology companies need to work harder to develop more technological tools that will prevent terrorist organizations to exploit social media sites.