Friday, August 22, 2014

Social media provides battle ground for terrorists

Social media is increasingly being exploited by terrorists to disseminate graphic videos, images and messages from around the world.

But the very size and automation of such networks is making it difficult for the companies concerned to control.

"Heart of their jihad"

"Social media is at the heart of their jihad," says Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute. Indeed by posting a video showing the beheading of kidnapped journalist James Foley on YouTube the terror group achieved far greater publicity than it may have achieved should they have posted it on a jihadist website.

News of the beheading spread like wildfire across social media, with users viewing the video and sharing the link on other sites. Meanwhile the hash tag #JamesFoley almost immediately became a trending topic on Twitter.

Instilling fear

The posts are intended to instil fear, attract new recruits and raise money for such terror networks, and to some degree it is working. Groups like ISIS have received huge publicity and instilled fear amongst many Western populations and politicians alike. From reports it seems clear that many British Muslims have left to join these radical groups. It is believed that some 500 British jihadists are fighting in Iraq and Syria, with half that number coming from London alone.

And whether directly or indirectly through the use of such tools as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Skype, ISIS have built up a massive wealth estimated to be in the region of $1 billion.

Online battle

Curtailing the use of these social media platforms by terrorist groups is difficult. While YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook all have rules about what can be posted, it often requires users flagging up content before the companies can act.

Eileen Naughton, the new managing director of Google in the UK, explained that while the video concerned was "really troubling", YouTube, which is owned by Google, deals with a deluge of data every minute, making it very difficult to immediately remove content.

Indeed the video remained online throughout much of Tuesday 19th August before being taken down after being flagged for being in violation of YouTube policy concerning "violent and disgusting content". In a statement the company said that while it defended "everyone's right to express unpopular points of view," it draws the line on several subjects, including pornography and bomb making.

"Terrorist organizations have moved their online presence to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media outlets," Gabriel Weimann, a University of Haifa professor, said in a recent report on terrorism and social media. "They have turned to the new media not only because counterterrorism agencies have disrupted their traditional online presence but also because the new media offers huge audiences and ease of use."

Breaking terror laws by watching

However, ordinary users of these social networks run the risk of being labelled a terrorist or breaking terror laws. Scotland Yard's Counter Terrorism Command, SO15, has said it will be investigating the video and has warned people against viewing the graphic footage themselves.

Meanwhile, a Metropolitan Police spokesperson said, "We would like to remind the public that viewing, downloading or disseminating extremist material within the UK may constitute an offence under Terrorism legislation."

Social media backlash

There have been some examples of self policing and citizens themselves reporting links. Twitter and Facebook users soon began posting pleas to not watch the content, calling it horrific, sickening and shameful. The hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout also became popular.

But last night it was clear that the battle lines were moving as jihadists began posting on Diaspora and

In the four-minute, 40-second video, posted on YouTube, James Foley kneels in the desert in an orange uniform as a masked man dressed in black stands beside him. Foley recites a statement calling the US government his "real killers" and disavowing his American citizenship before he is beheaded.

There was mixed opinion about whether one should watch the video, law breaking aside. Channel Four News reader Krishnan Guru-Murthy suggested that simply by watching one was giving ISIS the oxygen of  publicity and submitting to their intention of spreading fear.

"Spreading a video, or even watching it yourself and telling people about it, is simply doing exactly what IS and al-Qaeda want. It is, in effect, helping them," he argues.

However, he tended to skim over the fact that while most media did not show the video, by reporting its content they were still "telling people about it" and thus in Krishnan's own words "helping them".

The video may have been an attempt to stop Western aggression, but it will likely have the opposite effect. There is a danger however that anti-Islamic tensions may rise inflaming already volatile relations between Muslims and the general population in parts of Britain, Europe and the US

Reports: BBC / Channel 4 News / Guardian / TelegraphIBT / Vice News / Emergency Management / Press TV / Guardian / NY Post / Register / Channel 4 News

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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