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A nation must think before it acts.
Thousands of ISIS member Twitter accounts have been shutdown over the past two weeks by Twitter. The implications are apparently dire for ISIS. While they continued to recreate accounts to re-establish their audiences in social media, some members of ISIS and their supporters posted death threats against Twitter employees including co-founder Jack Dorsey. “Your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you…we told you from the beginning it’s not your war but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back.” Social media and Twitter in particular has been key lifeblood for ISIS, and apparently losing this communication platform has significant consequences for the group. A tip for ISIS – threatening to kill Twitter’s corporate leadership will not likely get your account reinstated.
I once believed that social media shutdowns were a waste of time, a game of whack-a-mole where terrorists could just constantly reopen new accounts and continue on. Research from J.M. Berger (@intelwire) shows that social media account suspensions seriously cripple terror groups’ ability to communicate their message and rally their followers. (If you haven’t checked out his “The ISIS Twitter Census” you are absolutely missing out.)
Imagine you follow a television company on channel #2. One day it goes out, and then the company begins broadcasting on channel #17 a few days later. After a day or two, channel #17 goes out and the company’s broadcasts resurface on channel #37. By that time, you may find it to hard to find the channel or may not even be aware of how to access it. More importantly, your trust and confidence in the channel will likely be diminished.
That is exactly what happens to terror groups when Twitter repeatedly suspends their accounts. The audience becomes frustrated, uncertain where the content will arise and unsure whether the new account is authentic. The terror group doesn’t vanish completely from social media but its effectiveness diminishes significantly. Al Shabaab, the first terror group to prolifically use Twitter during the 2012 to 2013 timeframe has been effectively squelched over the past two years through account shutdowns that have paralleled the group’s decline.
Twitter and peer social media companies will never be able to entirely eliminate extremists like ISIS from their platforms. But social media account closures across all channels will severely impact their ability to reach a wide audience likely degrading their ability to recruit and resource. Counterterrrorists should begin examining now what ISIS and other extremist groups will do to get out their message and reach their audience if social media remains unavailable. Will it be devolution or evolution for ISIS?
Extremist groups like ISIS could devolve back to the forum systems of al Qaeda. Prior to the advent of social media, al Qaeda proliferated its message and guidance through password protected forums where supporters were granted access in a semi-closed, content controlled environment. Under this system, whose access was more difficult than social media, content could get out, but forum administrators controlled membership and discussion. Counterterrorists and watchers of all things jihadi penetrated forums. Forums were also disrupted from time to time through denial of service attacks. But, the younger generation of ISIS fanboys will likely loathe moving to such a system. First, they are difficult to access compared to social media. Second and more importantly, controversial topics, such as the defection of Omar Hammami from Shabaab or the challenging of al Qaeda’s strategic direction, were squelched and incentivized young jihadis to move to social media. For ISIS’s egomaniacal “Me” generation members, a shift back to forums’ censorship and authentication will likely be unpalatable.
ISIS, unlike its predecessors and peers, has demonstrated technical capability suggesting they might be able to evolve rather than devolve in their communications. As described in J.M. Berger’s Twitter census, ISIS has employed bots to proliferate its messages on Twitter. ISIS also became the first to develop its own application for direct access to the group’s content and enable messaging. The app failed in its first incarnation, but the availability of tech savvie youngsters in ISIS and amongst its fan base might bring about a new wave of terror group innovation; the development of content hosting and dissemination technology more out of reach from Western counterterrorism efforts.
The important point for Western counterterrorism efforts is to quickly anticipate what the consequences will be for finally pushing extremists off of social media. Terror groups, and ISIS more than many others, must communicate with its popular support base to survive. The West should look now to see if ISIS evolves and develops its own tech or devolves back to older ways. Prepare to disrupt the next preferred communication channel now rather than waiting for terrorists to again get the upper hand as we’ve witnessed with social media.