Terrorism, Communication, and Globalization: Analyzing Effects of Social Media on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Efforts

By: Nicole Thees


Advances in mobile technology, social media, and access to high-speed internet have revolutionized communication world-wide, giving a voice to an array of previously disenfranchised groups and individuals. Terrorist organizations recognize these advantages and capitalize on the internet’s unrestrictive nature as a basis for promoting operations and attracting recruits. This project explores how rapid advances in communication and technology generate new obstacles for states and technology companies attempting to combat terrorism in the virtual world and physical world. As an alternative to a traditional research paper, this assignment allowed students to create a blog on a topic pertaining to the Middle East, conduct research and write reflections of one’s findings weekly. This blog evolved from my initial interest of ISIS foreign fighters to examining how ISIS uses social media, to finally exploring the broader question of how this changes a state’s role in counter-terrorism. Data was gathered for this project through analyzing and tracking current events as they unfolded with ISIS during the fall of 2014. Additional methods included comparing different perspectives on globalizations through class lectures and readings while also looking at institutes who specialize in research on terrorism and counter-terrorism. My findings concludes current use of force to defeat terrorism is not sufficient on its own; there is a need to formulate a comprehensive strategy to address underlying causes of terrorism in order to achieve sustainable results.

Terrorism, Communication, and Globalization: Analyzing Effects of Social Media on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Efforts

As a point of reference, think back to 2007, the first year the iPhone was released. Most Americans were still using their trusty flip phones, primarily for talk and text because access to internet and social media required a laptop or desktop computer. During this time, cell phones had the ability to take photos and videos, but not to the extent or quality present today. Since 2007, the smartphone has evolved to become a staple for communication and is now the primary way individuals access the internet and social media. In Battle for the Arab Spring, authors Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren in their chapter titled “Media Revolution,” refer to rapid advancements in technology within Syria as a “technological revolution.” They recount how the arrival of mobile phone services and high speed internet in Syria during 2000 brought new platforms of communication to Syrians. Social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter quickly became channels of free speech and press, exposing injustices and coordinating protests among the population (45). Advances in mobile technology and social media in addition to access to high-speed internet have revolutionized communication world-wide, giving voice to an array of previously disenfranchised groups and individuals. Terrorist organizations recognize these advantages and capitalize on the internet’s free and unrestricted access to aid their operations. My initial research evolved from an interest in foreign fighters of ISIS, to examining how ISIS uses social media as a tool, to finally exploring a broader picture of how advances in technology are transforming the way states and various actors confront terrorism.

First, emerging terrorist organizations such as ISIS recognize technology as a major asset to their operations. They are known for using a range of social media platforms with an open access policy; meaning, they willingly share information, photos, and videos, putting their experiences on display for all to see. These posts, often serving as propaganda, not only urge prospective members to join their fight but supply instructions to foreigners on how to enter Syria. ISIS has captured international attention through their propaganda videos, incorporating elaborate pyrotechnics and violence to instill fear and appeal to a target audience of disenfranchised youth worldwide. Furthering their online presence, ISIS developed an app called “Dawn of Tidings,” allowing subscribers to sync their Twitter accounts and in turn the app routinely generates propaganda via photos, videos, and statuses. The app is so advanced it can surpass Twitter algorithms that monitor and remove graphic content. The transparency and online presence of ISIS serves as a stark contrast to older terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, who have always conducted their affairs with a level of secrecy. Al-Qaeda’s use of media and technology opts for a more moderate approach on older platforms. For example, senior members of Al-Qaeda upload lectures to YouTube, sometimes hours in length, and even publish a magazine titled Inspire. This magazine provided instructions on how to make home-made bombs that the Tsarnaev brothers used to carry out the Boston Marathon bombing. ISIS and Al-Qaeda both operate through modern channels of media but the differences in their approaches to disseminate their message serves as a juxtaposition of the old and new world orders of terrorism, as each competes to retain their inherent values without becoming obsolete in the modern world.

A growing presence on social media by terrorist organizations like ISIS poses unique challenges to the United States government and tech companies who have failed to counteract these groups’ social media use. As part of a new counter-terrorism strategy, the FBI created a program where FBI informants monitor online behavior to seek out potential ISIS recruits. In examples cited in post eight, the FBI targets individuals searching for connections to ISIS or other terrorist organizations and engage with them by posing as members of these groups. By communicating with these individuals, the agent’s goal is to decipher their level of commitment to join a terrorist organization as well as their potential threat to United States’ security. While this program enabled FBI informants to capture potential recruits at the airport before boarding planes to Syria, the FBI’s strategy has been heavily criticized. Lawyers of accused individuals and advocacy groups maintain the FBI’s approach is counter-productive because it preys on vulnerable and uninformed individuals. They allege these undercover informants drive individuals to pursue action by offering help and connections to Syria, leaving many to question if individuals would have pursued these actions without their encouragement. The FBI has responded by insisting their efforts send a clear message; these activities are strictly monitored, prohibited, and enforced severely and individuals caught by these operations face up to 15 years in prison and $250,000 fine. Conversely, techniques used by intelligence agencies have proven more successful through their collection of metadata such as a user’s location present in social media postings. For example, through metadata collection, the United States uncovered ISIS operation cites and destroyed major satellites, forcing ISIS members to use less secure internet connections. As a result, intelligence agencies can easily access previously secure information.

Tech companies have found themselves taking on new roles as non-governmental actors trying to offset terrorism as a result of new challenges posed by an increased presence by ISIS and Al-Qaeda online. Companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube concentrate on removing content that contains violence, calls to violence, illegal activities, or promotion of terrorist organizations. However, their efforts have been largely unsuccessful because of the overwhelming task of blocking access to multitudes of users while also monitoring and removing enormous amounts of online content. ISIS members are aware of this and can easily circumvent online monitoring by operating from multiple accounts on various platforms from YouTube to Tumblr, creating new accounts when others are shut down. Sophisticated techniques as illustrated by the ISIS app can also deceive monitoring algorithms to avoid diminishing their presence online. Responses to terrorism online has created a dilemma for social media companies that want to operate on principles of safety and security but still provide unrestricted access to information. In a discussion on NPR over this issue, opponents arguing against the removal of terrorist group content perceive this as a threat to free speech and free press within the United States because they view social media as an alternative source of news. At the center of their argument is the fear and tech companies are taking on the role of censors, deciding what is suitable for Americans to see. Instead, opponents recognize a value in allowing users to access this information in that it can illustrate effectively the unpleasant realities of war major news outlets fail to address.

Through analyzing current counter-terrorism efforts of the United States against ISIS through different perspectives of globalization, we can understand how each perspective presents strengths, challenges, and lessons for the United States and other countries combatting terrorism. The United States approached the ISIS threat from a realist position; exerting force to increase security, enforcing stricter punishments on foreign fighters, and increasing military capabilities through drone strikes. For the United States, the priority remains securing their interests in the Middle East while providing support and protection to its allies in the region. These actions reflect the United States’ desire to maintain its position as a dominant power in an international context This counter-terrorism strategy not only fails to account for a long-term solutions by prevention and addressing terrorism’s root causes but neglects major lessons in history that show force alone cannot eliminate the threats of terrorism. Continuing on the path of realism, the United States and its allies miss opportunities to alleviate future threats of terrorism in the region.

A liberal perspective on globalization argues force alone cannot eliminate the current conflict; instead liberals emphasize a multi-lateral cooperation among an array of stakeholders. As an illustration, the United Nations encouraging dialogue between affected parties is the essence of the liberal approach to international conflict. Advocating for a liberal approach to terrorism is the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), whose research on deradicalization programs in London urges government authorities, non-governmental agencies, and individuals returning from conflict to work together to prevent future radicalization and violence. The goal of these deradicalization programs are to provide individuals, who wish to return to their home country after fighting for organizations like ISIS, a path to reintegrate back into society. The program is a response to individuals who travel abroad to join a group but wish to return home. The problem being, they are unable to return to their home country because their government either revokes their passport and/or denounces their citizenship. Individuals wishing to return home pose a threat to the security of the state and are often imprisoned, a punishment the ICSR sees as furthering radicalization and encouraging violence. By giving individuals a chance to rehabilitate, governments could have a more effective strategy for achieving stability and security long-term. A deradicalization program is currently employed in London and has shown success, although it will need to be implemented for a longer period of time to assess its full effects. The ICSR maintains prioritizing discussion and rehabilitation over imprisonment can prevent further radicalization but requires commitment and cooperation from all stakeholders. Overall this example illustrates the effectiveness multi-lateral approaches can have for achieving more durable results.

The emergence of ISIS resurfaced fears of the Middle East and terrorism, prevalent post 9/11 and throughout the war in Iraq. Conversations on the subject reverted to framing the conflict in terms of good versus evil; overlooking the underlying causes of why these movements are forming and why individuals are attracted to them. This perspective, referred to as cosmopolitanism, calls for a broader discussion of key factors such as corruption, economic inequality, and unemployment that compel individuals to join terrorist organizations. Cosmopolitans view othering that often takes place within these dialogues as counter-productive and call for a humanitarian approach in alleviating these larger issues to create a more just world. Through cosmopolitanism, it is evident another individual in jail, another individual dead, will not eradicate terrorism. When leaders can address and recognize these underlying grievances of the powerless and the ignored, will progress be made.

As social media has become a primary channel of communication in the modern world, it has created a new outlet for voices worldwide to be heard. Social media’s ability to transcend language and culture makes it a powerful tool to spread a message and terrorist groups such as ISIS have recognized this. The emergence of ISIS and their active role online has given rise to a new set of challenges for states in eliminating terrorism but it has also granted access to information inside the movement like never before. Now, efforts to combat terrorism must take place in the physical world and the virtual world, as states and tech companies try to dismantle social media campaigns by terrorist organizations whose goal is to recruit individuals to their cause. Online propaganda poses new threats to state security by attracting foreign fighters but trying to remove the copious amounts of content online is not feasible. Instead, perspectives of globalization discussed earlier, such as liberalism and cosmopolitanism are generating new ways to understand why radicalization occurs and calling for solutions that encourage affected parties to participate in rehabilitation programs for previously radicalized individuals. Overall, there is a consensus that eliminating terrorism cannot be achieved by relying solely on force. In our increasingly globalized world, terrorism can only be addressed adequately by employing a comprehensive strategy that allows for an array of perspectives and means that will produce long-standing results.



Author Bio

Nicole Thees Pangea Photo

Nicole Thees is a senior, majoring in Global Studies with a focus in the Middle East and international conflict. She has had the privilege to intern for St. Edward’s at their Global Understandings workshops, where she helped students learn about the impacts of tourism. She has also interned at Keep Texas Beautiful, developing content for their annual conference and community achievement awards. She plans to further her studies this summer by traveling to Morocco on a study abroad program. After graduation, she would like to attend graduate school where she can advance her education in Middle East security issues.


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