We all know that our new digital channels (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, chat rooms etc.) are the preferred medium for advancing radical ideologies and the terrorist agenda. The goal and mission of the global security community is to address the scope of radicalization and assess what steps can be taken in order to mitigate the rise of terror via social media.
Social media is only the accelerant that takes a thought or idea and advances that idea through volume and multiples never before available. However, from my perspective—a perspective shared by a wide range of security professionals—technology is not the problem. This is a human problem, and our neglect to address the needs of women and our youth culture makes a warm target audience for terror group recruiters.
Studies of the radicalization process and message have identified that terrorist content and branding occurs in clusters that target our youth culture and specifically women searching for a voice, sense of purpose and identity. Recent estimates indicate that more than 30,000 radicalized fighters, including at least 250 Americans, have either traveled or attempted to travel to Syria or Iraq to fight with extremist groups, including ISIS. Federal and state governments, as well as communities, have begun to take action to mitigate the threat of terrorist propaganda on social media; however, they have experienced multiple challenges in combating such a wide and pervasive threat.
In recent years, terrorist organizations have successfully crafted their image to recruit new members and inspire what we now call “lone wolf” attacks. Terrorists’ use social media to target vulnerable populations and individuals. Media platforms like Twitter are used to accelerate the propaganda message and enable supporters to find one another. Blogs, chat rooms and other encrypted portals are responsible for aggressive recruiting.
Social media is revolutionary and a tool now used for strategic communication. To counter the mastery and use of these platforms by terrorists, we must look inward to our schools, churches, temples, civic organizations and industry leaders to build counter clusters of information and deliver a narrative that not only denounces the terrorist way of life but offers clear alternatives and direction to our women and youth culture. Creating this narrative by itself is not enough; it requires an active network to support and sustain the message. These messages need to originate from credible resources and be continuously re-told by the people who belong to the network. It is important to understand that social media only works when the narrative being conveyed is more than a sound bite. It requires a network to convey and amplify it, so it gains traction and becomes part of a counter-movement. What must be kept in mind is that these narratives are not merely the product of words but of social practices.
Further, we need specific and anonymous places to report terrorist recruitment efforts. Schools need confidential reporting systems for students to share campus recruiting by individuals and groups, and parents need to be more present in their children’s lives.
Since we are not about to alter the language of our Constitution and 1st amendment right to free speech—and policing these social media platforms will stop some but not all of the terrorist propaganda—using social media as an intervention tool will actually pull people back and reengage them in purposeful conversation and behavior.