The Role of Social Media in Terrorism

The Role of Social Media in Terrorism

We live in an online global village. The sophistication of smartphones and the the growth in social networking sites empowers members of the public to connect with like-minded people with shared interests, whether they are innocent or more sinister interests. This is the reality for law enforcement agencies. This is the reality for all of us. We are sharing Twitter with terrorists, YouTube with extremist recruiters and Facebook with fanatical organisations. This is the information age.

The two-way street that is social media also provides deeply interactive ways for individuals to communicate, in real time, across international borders that, heretofore, took hours or days. Police forces and security agencies all over the world are now working closer than ever before as the social web has resulted in the removal of geographic borders.

In this blog post I take a look at how policing organisations, terrorist organisations and we the public are using social media in the context of global terrorism.

The Social Web Gives Everyone A Voice

In 2014 there were 1.82 billion social network users around the globe, up from 1.47 billion in 2012.

There are 7.3 billion people in the world, of which 50% are online, while 90% of the population has access to a mobile phone.

The mobile Internet does not just liberate us from the constraints of a wired connection, it offers hundreds of millions around the world their only, or primary, means of accessing the Internet. Second, the mobile Internet does not just extend the reach of the Internet as used on fixed connections, but it offers new functionality in combination with new portable smart devices. (Source: Global Internet Report 2015)

JSB Web Summit

During the 2015 Web Summit in Dublin in a panel discussion on EU migrants, technology and what it means to be free, we were told that the first two questions arriving migrants ask when they hit dry land or cross a border are:

  1. What country am I in?
  2. Is there wifi?

Migrants arriving in strange countries know that with a mobile phone and a wifi connection they can communicate with family back home. We are a long way from our ancestors leaving on the famine ships from Ireland to New York and never seeing or indeed hearing from family members ever again.

Social Media, Terrorism & Policing

In November 2015 the European Confederation of Police (EuroCOP) which represents over a half a million police officers in Europe held their 3-day Congress in Dublin, with terrorism and the migration crisis high on the agenda. I was live blogging the event which took place a mere two days after the Paris attacks.

JSB Live Blogging EuroCOP Congress

 

It became apparent that police forces across Europe feel very exposed in the fight against terrorism – both offline and online. They feel ill-prepared and in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris EuroCOP issued the following statement.

Photo by Joanne Sweeney-Burke

Minister for Justice & Equality Frances Fitzgerald addressing the EuroCOP Congress in Dublin Castle. Photo by Joanne Sweeney-Burke

I’ve been saying for quite some time that police forces are struggling to keep up with the rapid speed of communication as they fight criminals who are using the social web to expedite their ‘business operations’.

Policing organisations however, are using the social web at vastly different levels – from using it as a simple communications tool to keep the public up to date as in the Irish experience, to more sophisticated uses such as in Spain where they developed SIGO – an integrated operations management system which enables officers to share information with other law enforcement agencies both within the country and abroad. A dedicated investigative tool within SIGO called SINVES, supports Guardia Civil’s elite Terrorism and Major Crime Investigation unit. By incorporating specialist intelligence and analytical capabilities in a highly secure environment, SINVES enables the unit to control access to sensitive information and share it in confidence if necessary.

While we have made great strides in disabling traditional terrorist models like al-Qaeda, the convergence of globalisation and technology has created a new brand of terrorism. These extremists are self-recruited, self-trained, and self-executing. The may not have any connection to al-Qaeda or to other terrorist groups. They share ideas and information in the shadows of the Internet. They gain inspiration from radical websites that call for violence.

 – Robert Muller, former Director of the FBI.

The multiple coordinated attacks in Paris brings into sharp focus the role that social media has to play in terrorism. The self-styled Islamic State released a statement on social media claiming responsibility for the deaths of 129 people and critically injuring dozens more – the first time according to media outlets – that it has claimed a terrorist attack in Europe. (Read more in the Irish Times)

Organised crime and terrorism threats have become the two key areas of interest for law enforcement agencies in using the social web. The London bombings of 2007, the Madrid bombings of 2004, 9/11 in the United States, the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013 and this year the Charlie Hebdo and the Parisian attacks in France, are just a few incidences where social media was used extensively by bystanders to report and, indeed, victims to record their terror.

On the other side fanatical organisations are increasingly availing of social media platforms and mobile phone technologies to advertise, recruit, plan and film or communicate attacks.

Social media, terrorism & terrorists

The Arabic hashtag, “#باريس_تشتعل,” is directly translated on Twitter to “Paris is Burning.”

In the days following the Paris attacks an Islamic State supporter used Twitter to express joy over the attacks. He tweeted the grim words “Paris is Burning” and used the hashtag Parisisburning.

That hashtag has been co-opted by supporters of IS to gloat. Tweets containing the Arabic translation of the hashtag also contain photos from the scenes of the attacks. IS supporters have also been using the trending hashtag Prayforparis to show support for and to praise the attacks. Why? Because they infiltrating a global trend to get visibility.

Parisisburning also has been used by people sharing information on how to help victims, locate friends and family in Paris and express their sympathies.

Social media, terrorism & citizens

Facebook activated a safety check that allows people in Paris to check in and mark themselves as safe, which then allows their friends on the social network to see that they are ok.

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The U.S. band Eagles of Death Metal, who were performing a concert at the Bataclan concert hall communicated with its fans through its Facebook page, saying it was trying to determine the safety and whereabouts of band members.

French President Francois Hollande meanwhile, used Twitter to keep his fellow French citizens up to date on the situation. Social media proved a valuable communications tool in keeping the public informed while many of the innocent caught up in the travesty live tweeted in the aftermath.

Is legislation the answer?

Proposed social media legislation in terrorist backlash a major privacy concern

The article below published by Emma Rosser, and published in The Sociable is worth a read. She chronicles a debate in the US Senate this week which saw politicians debate a new legislative framework which would see social networking sites being forced to report any suspected terrorist activity. This has of course split political opinion with one camp claiming there is a security responsibility on these tech companies to provide such data, while the other camp claims this will lead to censorship and breaches in privacy. What side are you on? For me I think technology has evolved much faster than our Governments and police forces can deal with and it’s time for a global strategy on cyberc crime, cyber security and cyber terrorism.

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Lawmakers in the US have proposed legislation requiring social media platforms to report any online terrorist activity amid freedom of speech and privacy concerns.

This latest step in a saga of online privacy versus state security comes amid concerns that sites like Facebook have become a platform for terrorist hate propaganda and recruitment.

On Tuesday Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator Richard Burr introduced the bill meaning companies would be required to report any sign of terrorist activity to law enforcement agencies.

This legislation defines terrorist activity as the planning, recruiting or distribution of terrorist material.

“We’re in a new age where terrorist groups like ISIL are using social media to reinvent how they recruit and plot attacks,” reported Feinstein. Through using this information the Senator proposes that together tech companies and intelligence and law enforcement agencies can better protect the country from vulnerability to terrorism.

A new wave of terror driven via social media

The recent tragedies of the San Bernardino shootings last week carried out by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik left 14 dead and 21 injured are now being investigated as an act of terrorism after a Facebook post connected the incident to the Islamic State group.

A Facebook post on Malik’s alias account preceding the attack pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State group, leading authorities to investigate the shooting as an act of terrorism. The post was discovered the following day, removed and reported to law enforcement agents. According to CNN, FBI investigation has tied Farook with a California-based group of jihadists arrested in 2012 to attempted to join al Qaeda.

Islamic State group hacker Junaid Hussein was found to have used social media to contact individuals in attempts to persuade them to commit terrorist attacks in the US and UK Hussein used multiple Twitter handles, which were in turn discovered and shut down by Twitter.

Reporters given free reign over suspected terrorists’ home

Stirring the pot of controversy even more, news reporters were allowed to enter the home of Farook and Malik in which they were given full access to all of their personal items. This included handling pictures of their family members on live TV who had no part in the attacks.

The ethical implications raised by also displaying identification cards of the family members on-air was understandably met with outrage as it could potentially lead to the endangerment of those individuals by persecution.

A spokesperson for MSNBC stated, “We regret that we briefly showed images of photographs and identification cards that should not have been aired without review.”

Social media monitoring may lead to a wave of liabilities

CNBC reported Facebook’s current stance on user monitoring as operating with globally distributed teams that review content  24 hours a day. Their employees already receive training in recognizing content that might be tied to terrorism. Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter teams additionally work with police, and the community in prevention of terrorist attacks.

However, new laws instead of strengthening this processes could actually turn out to be counter-productive, diluting reports in a wave of information sharing as social networks strive to eradicate any dangers of liability.

Facebook has 1.5 billion users – and relies heavily on this audience to also flag anything suspected to be terror related.

A spokesperson told CNBC,  “Facebook has zero tolerance for terrorists, terror propaganda, or the praising of terror activity and we work aggressively to remove it as soon as we become aware of it. If we become aware of a threat of imminent harm or a planned terror attack, our terms permit us to provide that information to law enforcement and we do.”

Potential dangers in recognizing legitimate threats

“Terrorism is a contested concept,” reports Alex Schmid, leading scholar in the field of terrorism studies. There exists no universal legal definition approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations for terrorism.

The ambiguity around defining this entity means that social media companies may end up overcompensating with an onslaught of data-sharing, for fear of liability.

The Associated Press reported that the Internet Association that represents large Internet companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter claimed the proposal to set “an unworkable standard for reporting,” encouraging over-reporting and making it harder to find legitimate threats.

Additionally, Senator Roy Wyden, D-OR, noted in a potential unintended consequence of this might be the risk of companies who do not look for content that may fallen under these categories – to avoid breaking the law in failing to report information discovered.

As executives of major online platforms enter into the debate of online security, strengthened connections with governments appear inevitable. Many claim that this level of collaboration is necessary, considering social network executives to be out of their depth in issues of homeland security.

Government intervention and conspiracy with the likes of Facebook and Twitter raises valid questions over freedom of speech and privacy rights. There is a fine line between protection and privacy violation, once crossed it is unlikely these giants will backtrack.

Facebook recently hit headlines through the circulation of the “Most Words Used” app – where participants in the experiment shared large amounts of personal information to unknown sources across the globe. Reportedly this information gave corporations access to program individuals online viewing behaviors, advertising and to monitor conversation.

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