Social media has revolutionized terrorism, acting as a tool to streamline communication in underground networks and make the recruitment of individuals more accessible. This has led to increased dissemination of extremist content online, facilitating radicalization. Terrorist or extremist groups can easily communicate their opinions and misinformation in an immediate and widely accessible format, sharing information with a wide global audience, while tailoring their messages to specific local audiences. As expert Dr. Maura Conway has stated, “Today’s Internet not only allows for the dissemination and consumption of ‘extremist material’ in a one-way flow from producer to consumer, but also high levels of online social interaction around this material”.
Major terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State have used social media to encourage individuals to join their campaigns in Syria and Iraq, taking advantage of a variety of platforms and formats to extend their impact. They use platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to spread disinformation and extremism, often using various tactics such as blurry logos, video content and unusual punctuation to evade counterterrorism detection within of these platforms. They were able to form teams of social media users who retweet or share propaganda to grab the attention of potential recruits and direct them to more private chat sites. ISIS’s social media strategy demonstrates the dangers of social media and its potential to fuel extremist thought and mobilize violence, with estimates that they have recruited 40,000 people from 110 countries through their online campaigns as of 2018.
In the United States, private blogs such as Infowars and Roosh V’s Return of Kings provide information and news on far-right extremism, such as the January 6 riot in the US Capitol or anti-vaccination campaigns. Online social networking sites such as 4chan and 8chan allow like-minded people to share messages and media related to extremist content and to orchestrate terrorist acts. This has created an extensive and ever-expanding online community where terrorist groups depend on social media for support of their organizations and recruitment of new members.
Social media has even become a weapon that those in power use to blast misinformation into bricked-up echo chambers to incite others to violence. Through Facebook troll accounts, Burma’s military – backed by Buddhist nationalist groups – has been spreading anti-Muslim posts, fake news and misleading photos to justify their massacre of Rohingya minorities. Burma’s military learned its tactic from the Russian government, which had divided communities across the United States through advertisements, Facebook pages and fake accounts, to influence the results of the 2016 election. The former president Donald Trump enacted the heavy handed tactics of his neighbors in December 2020, tweeting: “Big protest in DC Jan 6th. Be There, Will Be Wild” and “StopTheSteal”. Pro-Trump groups Oath Keepers and Proud Boys answered his call, mobilizing by storming the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, killing five in their wake. Unfortunately, these are just a few examples of the global wars of disinformation being waged across borders.
Disinformation warfare is accompanied by “disinformation plagues”. Misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines has spread like the virus itself, leading the World Health Organization and other United Nations organizations to call on member states to fight “the ‘COVID-19 infodemic’. According to the WHO Joint Committee declarationmisinformation has cost lives and helped unravel COVID-19 prevention policies, allowing the virus to continue to run wild.
Other devastating scourges are cyberstalking and cyberbullying, which involves online stalkers using photos, texts, recordings and videos to inject frustration, sadness, low self-esteem and anger into the victims. Many victims descended into drug addiction, academic difficulties or suicidal thoughts and even became abusers themselves, Iincubating hate to spread like a pandemic.
As global Internet access increases rapidly, social media continues to revolutionize our communication and provides us with tools to interact with people around the world. However, the borderless flow of information that social media offers us can easily threaten our security. In fact, we have seen how the line between online safety and personal safety has become blurred with the role digital communication plays in fostering radical ideologies and inciting violence. It is important to recognize the digital threats we all face and assess how certain platforms could be exploited in the future and play a role in radicalization and recruitment.
We need to focus on proactive prevention strategies that governments and online platform providers can adopt to mitigate this problem. Young people are particularly susceptible to extremist propaganda and can easily be coerced into joining organizations to feel a sense of community. Governments should support digital literacy programs through public schools and local and national youth and community organizations to educate minors about the risks of social media and how to recognize propaganda. Beyond that, they can work with social media organizations to ensure the private tech industry plays its part in protecting their users from potentially harmful content. Governments should promote the effective enforcement of applicable laws that prohibit the dissemination of terrorist or violent extremist content, even when the content is online, in accordance with their country’s laws and human rights.
However, the main ethical dilemma in advocating for increased government regulation is that social media providers are inherently concerned with freedom of expression. These platforms are designed to be a place where people can freely share their ideas because the internet is designed to be an unlimited platform that promotes open communication. We should not limit the ability of these sites to provide civil and political rights. At the same time, the identification and classification of content published as extremist must remain an important pillar of the objectives of these sites to guarantee the safety of their users. The question remains: what are the necessary restrictions on social media that also serve to further the platforms’ goal of providing robust dialogue and free communication?
This issue, among others, will be discussed at the Norris and Margery Bendetson Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship 2022 International Symposium on Passportless Issues, March 31-April 2, 2022. The international symposium, designed by a symposium of students Le EPIIC course through Tufts features international practitioners, scholars, public intellectuals, activists, and journalists who participate in panels and small group discussions. Junior Janya Gambhir, author of this editorial, will moderate the first panel of the symposium, titled “Social Media: Countering Extremism and Disinformation in the Digital Age”.