Social Media vs. Digital Jihad

BONN, GERMANY – On February 2015, three teenagers from a London school travelled to Turkey and allegedly crossed into ISIS-controlled areas in Syria.

A few months after, the three: Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase called their parents to say they will not return home. The three are allegedly lured into joining ISIS through social media.

“Women often leave for the very same reasons than men,” explained Marie Lamensch, Researcher at Concordia University’s Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies in Canada.

“They are multiple and very complex,” she said at a workshop at the 2015 Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2015 held in Bonn from 22 to 24 June.

She explained how these terrorists groups are also using social media and digital tools to advance their goals.

To recruit members, terrorist groups employ an “us-against-them” narrative and usually show potential members images of injured children in Syria to entice them to break away from their family and community, explained Lamensch.

Recruiters then cultivate an alternative worldview with targeted messaging. To entice women, “they idealize the life of the caliphate, in response to the feeling of isolation and loss that might have been felt in the West,” she said.

Recruiters then ask to meet the potential new recruits in person. Extremist groups, namely ISIS or the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram incite hate and violence with online jihadist messages and recruit followers using social media.

“We are seeing today the interface between technology, social media and mass atrocity,” said Kyle Matthews, Founder of Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab in Canada.

Amid this information warfare, imagery has become a psychological weapon. Terrorists use social media to target individuals in their own home and community, he said.

Today, ISIS has a 25,000-strong military force, he estimated. The militant group sends out 100,000 tweets a day.

In light of this pressing challenge, it is crucial that journalists do not disseminate militant groups’ radicalization narrative.

“Passing on the constant stream of violence is buying into their agenda,” said Gavin Rees, Director of the Dart Centre Europe for Journalism and Trauma in the United Kingdom.

There is indeed a logic in their discourse. ISIS uses images of dead Muslim newborns and then releases videos of victims’ executions such as the one of the Jordanian pilot with the aim of justifying their killing, explained Rees.

“The Internet has become a wild west. Nobody controls it,” he said.

In addition, it is key to further involve private companies, namely Twitter and Facebook, in counter-terrorism efforts so that while they respect freedom of expression, they do “not to showcase crimes against humanity,” said Matthews.


This short piece was written as part of a fellowship to cover the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Germany on June 2015. Click here.

The entire magazine is available here.

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