Social media has made communication much easier, but extremists use this very method to spread terrorist ideas. Governments and NGOs are finding it tough to catch up, as experts discussed at DW's Global Media Forum.
Last year in December, Indian police arrested a 24-year-old man, allegedly responsible for operating a Twitter handle linked to the "Islamic State" group from Bangalore, India's IT hub. Mehdi Masroor Biswas was a promising software engineer and well on his way to a successful career. He is accused of using his technical talent to gather some 20,000 followers for the "IS" Twitter account.
Biswas' alleged activities, and those of militant group recruiters who operate over Twitter and Facebook, show how terrorists are strategically using the mediums to gain more followers. Experts speaking at DW's Global Media Forum 2015 engaged in a discussion about how social media can be such an effective tool for terrorist activity.
The terrorists' tactics
Social media is an extremely effective way of getting your message through to your target. The medium overtook pornography as the number one activity on the Internet in July 2009, says Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, a social news network. She quotes a Stanford University study according to which, "when you're on social media, you have elevated levels of certain chemicals like Dopamine... Oxytocin, the love hormone."
Tweets and Facebook posts carry emotions to the reader, and tweets by terror groups are often "fun," says Gulmina Bilal, executive director of Individualland, an NGO in Pakistan. Extremist organizations have specialized public relations strategies. They use Facebook for teenagers and for women who stay at home. Children under eight years of age get their own set of militant cartoons to familiarize them with the ideology.
Activists for groups like Hizbul Islam and Jaish e Muhammad use tweets about daily life, like the food they eat, and slowly sneak in their "views" on the plight of children in Palestine, Bilal explains.
Who is the typical victim?
Poverty, loneliness, a non-existent love life - all these can contribute to why ordinary people fall victim to terror groups and get attracted by their ideologies, Bilal explains. While some turn to friends, many fall prey to terror activists and recruiters.
Al Shabab militants in Somalia for example often promise more money and a better future to attract combatants from Kenya and Tanzania, Bakari S. Machumu, Group Managing Editor at Mwananchi Communications in Tanzania tells the audience at the GMF 2015. Young people often go to terror training camps thinking they can work there and send money back home.
Terror recruiters in Afghanistan, for example, often criticize regimes or foreign forces like NATO and the USA that have been in the country but have failed to improve the situation there. "They try to recruit through trying to offer financial packages. There are lot of unemployed people who go and join them," Lotfullah Najafizadah, Director of Afghanistan's Tolo News, told DW.
Countering terror activities in the Internet
"Before, we couldn't know what terorrists were thinking, before social media, messages were linear. Now they aren't," says Fathy Mohammed Abou Hatab of the Al Masry Media Corporation in Egypt.
So are media, the government and civil society losing the battle against extremists, at least as far as social media is concerned?
"It is a daily and hourly battle," argues Gulmina Bilal of Pakistan. However, as far as Pakistan is concerned, the December attack on a school in Peshawar in which around 160 people, mostly children, were killed, has shaken the country. Twitter accounts and Facebook pages are being taken down, although they sprout up again in no time.
But the fight against terrorism is almost always at the cost of civil liberties. In Tanzania, journalist Machumu says, mistrust between the government and civil society has increased after laws were enacted against cyber crime. The new law enables police to confiscate computers of journalists, for example.
However, hope still abounds. Even in countries like Afghanistan where fears of the Taliban run high, people are beginning to speak up against terrorists and write against their ideologies on social media, Najafizada of Tolo News told DW.
Meanwhile, the discussion on cyber terorrism at the GMF 2015 takes a sinister turn after people notice a spam tweet showing up using DW's Twitter hashtag.
As the tweet suggests, "Islamic State" could have gatecrashed the hashtag, which was trending at the time - a reminder of how cyber terrorism works, even as we speak of it.