The Storytelling Shinobi
Fear and Loathing in 140 Characters or less.
It was about 3am in India and I was scrolling my twitter feed, when I came across the first few tweets about the attacks on Westgate in Kenya. There was one particular handle, which seemed to be the most up to date, it was as though they were reporting from the site of the incident, to my horror they were. It wasn’t a news agency nor was it a citizen journalist and sure wasn’t a hostage, the tweets were from the perpetrators Al Shabaab through their ‘official’ handle @HSM_Press.
Yes, the terrorists are tweeting.
Pic 1: Live feed of Al Shabaab during the Westgate shootout.
Social Media sites have become hot beds of propaganda and recruitment. The democracy of the internet allows terrorist and banned outfits to use Youtube, Facebook Pages, Groups and Twitter accounts in ways that rival any corporate entity.
#Social Media Strategy of Terrorism
So what does a terrorist organization do on social media? One maybe quick to dismiss them as misguided rants on the internet but this is far from the truth. The evolution of these accounts is noticeable; a sophisticated network is being crafted, possibly mirroring advances in the real world.
If I had to summarize their 6 point social media strategy this is what it would look like:
- Capture Attention – Sharing media and information that range from creating optimal level of dissonance to being just plain morbid.
- Engage – Create conversations and in some rare cases possibly network with other outfits
- Educate – Alert the audience to their cause and in some cases offer ‘reason’ for their actions. Quite simply, Propaganda.
- Recruit – Get newer followers, members…..friends? After all, need for group affiliation is a primal urge.
- Call to action – Every strategy needs to lead to an action and here the consequences are devastating.
- Threaten – Try to incite violence or intimidate users who are not on their side.
#Social weapons of mass destruction
On these platforms, guns and bombs aren’t powerful and softer skills come to the fore. I surveyed a few accounts and noticed that they utilize an understated yet powerful weapon – they LISTEN. It sounds basic but as an angry-misunderstood-rebellious-youth, all you want to do is, be heard and these organizations have started to do an exceptional job of it.
Pic 2. Threatening tweets (the account claims to be unofficial, insensitive or poor humor?)
The second powerful weapon made possible by Social media is - to Incite fear through DISINFORMATION. These range from misrepresentation of facts to sharing fabricated media through their networks. The video hoax involving the beheading of immigrants in Russia by Neo Nazi supremacists is an example of groups seeking ways to terrorize the public by falsely trying to showcase power and instill fear.
Another example close to home is the case of the persecuted Rohingya community, in an attempt to give them a voice, disturbing pictures of victims of the tsunami from Indonesia were morphed an used to depict a mass killing of the Rohingya community. Several suspected terrorist organizations circulated these false images of triggering protests globally, including in Mumbai. In the global fabric we exist now, the butterfly effect holds true all the more.
My guess is that given that the confirmation bias among group members and handle followers is rather high, it makes them easy prey.
Here’s another horrific example, A Russian supremacist group has been using social network to lure gay teens to ‘date’ after which they are beaten and tortured. We probably won’t classify this as terrorism but if the definition of ‘inciting terror to coerce’ is accurate this should qualify.
Pic 3. Freedom of Speech or Hateful propaganda? Who gets to decide?
Besides being a place for recruitment, Networking has become a reality for groups. Yes, you heard me right they network socially too. As CNN reported, A faction of the Al Qaeda Network, AQIM's account was following seven people including Al Shabaab and Al Nusra front in Syria, which in turn was following another rebel group in Aleppo. Some solace in the fact that most of the other followers were usually curious journalists.
You know how you’ve heard that updating your status and publicly stating to your friends and followers that you’ll quit smoking or lose weight is likely to guarantee you’ll do it? Similarly, Social media subtly forces public commitment and gets people to admit and proclaim allegiance in their own networks. So when someone tweets about their support to a banned outfit or engages in conversation with them, it becomes a stronger part of their identity.
Once someone has been incited, converted and committed, the next phase is to make them act. The amount of do-it-yourself-terrorism material that is online is stunning. This has the potential to create what experts are dubbing one of the most horrific villains of this century – ‘The Lone Wolf’ . These are One man armies, incited and indoctrinated ready to strike at random, making it difficult to monitor and combat for any government .Without a high command they are very much like ticking time bombs, in some cases literally.
So, how do these social networks respond online? Let’s face it we’re not going to take it lightly if they decide to police their digital space. Imagine, you’re account being suspended because of a hateful 140 character assault on Miley Cyrus? You probably deserve it, but I’m not one to judge. The question here is, who gets to decide if you’re post was an innocuous jab, A Hate Slur or an act of terrorism?
The Wiesenthal Center released a report on digital terror/hate in May where they graded these social media sites to highlight their role in combating terrorism and hate on the internet. Facebook earned an A- because of its clear and stringent terms of usage and transparency. Youtube scored a C- because of the number of ‘Do it yourself’ terrorist videos and propaganda messages. Shockingly, Twitter was marked with an F because of its poor record with handling hashtags and accounts of haters and terrorist organizations.
Twitter spokespersons were quick to point out that it was virtually impossible for them to go through the 500 millions tweets a day on their site especially when they are 35 different languages. However, Twitter acted on a policy known as “country-withheld content” where Neo-Nazi accounts have been blocked in Germany and France.
The unofficial word is that several terrorist organizations are informally bolstering a sort of a Social Media strategy. Making themselves more accessible to their audience, indulging them with conversations, showcasing a less ‘belligerent’ side, something the smartest corporates and brands fail to do.
When the debate over censorship of social media gets stronger, It is heartening to note that there are groups leveraging this very medium constructively. ‘Against Violent Extremism’ is one such social media network created for former terrorists and victims to find ways to cope with their situation.
Pic 4 Screenshot of the homepage of ‘Against Violent Extremism’. Note the term ‘formers’ on the right.
As you read the tweets, your mind grapples with the fact that these accounts are actually handled by a ‘person’ with feelings, emotions and an agenda. Truth vs. Disinformation, Propaganda vs. Cry for help, Terrorist or Vigilante - important questions for our internet democracy. George Bernard Shaw once was quoted saying ‘Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve’.
Let’s work towards keeping this Social Media Democracy healthy and alive.