Live From SXSW: Frontlines of Social Media Jihad

March 17, 2015       Joleen Ong      

While the mantra of social media encourages individuals to broadcast themselves to the world, the darker, more chilling side is its potential for exploitation of impressionable youth.

Recent accounts of the recruitment undertaken the by extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, commonly known as ISIS, has raised many flags about the role of NGOs, governments, and technology companies in confronting the violent extremist activities on the Internet and social media while protecting personal freedoms and the free expression of ideas.

During SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, four experts working in the field of countering violent extremism (CVE) discussed the current state of recruitment in the session, On the Frontlines of the Social Media Jihad, and what can be done by online communities worldwide to deter this.

“We’ve had discrete groups of people living in their own spaces and developing their own narratives,” explained Shahed Amanullah, CEO and co-founder of the online platform, LaunchPosse. “But with the Internet, you’ve got connections between people, and its enabled conflict and violence to become globalized.”

According to Nadia Oweidat, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, “Arabic is spoken by half a billion people in the world, 80 percent are under 40 years old, and 50 percent are under 25 percent. The 80 percent are young and hungry for information, they’re engaged users of social media, and among the most active in the world and on Facebook, with Smartphone usage in the region among the highest in the world.”

This extremely connected and engaged audience offers ample opportunity for radicalization, especially with impressionable youth looking to identify with a greater cause. It is the “narrative challenge,” explained Humera Khan, executive director of the anti-terrorism think tank, Muflehun, “it is the battle for hearts and minds.”

Khan cited startling research conducted by Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, which found that “about 90 percent of radicalization is actually happening virtually. There were 47,000 pro-ISIS Twitter accounts, and 200 anti-ISIS Twitter accounts [in late 2014].”

When asked if there’s a correlation between economic mobility and the propensity for extremism, Khan explained, “it’s the combination of poverty and the feeling of injustice with the perception that they cannot change the system. They think that the system has failed them, so they need to break it.”

How can groups compete against extremist narrative? Amanullah correlated, “extremists operate like startups, and we respond like corporations.” He championed the idea of hackathons as a way to spur innovation, incubate the best ideas, and fund viable companies. Essentially, creating social impact venture funds to fund CVE on social media.

Matthew Rice, an analyst at the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center, shared his perspective. “It’s important to counter or offer alternative narratives, share information, and catalyze non-governmental solutions, such as setting up forums. We work with the New America Foundation on social media training where groups can meet with the community around the country to respond online to make sure they can relay the right message to deter radicalization.

Khan offered a word of caution: “If you are communicating with violent extremists, you need to let the authorities know beforehand.” She cited her own personal experience of Tweeting with someone on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for six months.

When asked how much of this conflict on the part of the fundamentalists in the region is a response to the modernization of the media and society, Oweidat explained, “with the new generation, we have an enormous gap with old and new, each are struggling for their own existence.” She elaborated, “there are two points of view in the Arab world: those that want to go back to the way things were, and those that want to connect with the rest of the world. Technology is empowering the global citizen narrative.”

“Every person has the choice between building or destroying,” urged Oweidat. “Constructive voices need to be amplified.”

New data about ISIS supporters on Twitter was recently published by the Brookings Institute, The ISIS Twitter Census, which helps to explain who and where they are, and how they participate in its highly organized online activities. This research was shared in the SXSW session on Tuesday, March 17.