Almost weekly, social media and tech companies are criticised for not doing enough to counter radicalisation and terrorist networks using their platforms. Calls for social media networks to be shut down, or for legislation to be put in place to make them more accountable are commonplace. But by making Twitter, Facebook and others solely responsible for radicalisation will not address the fundamentals of the issue.
Our preoccupation with social media companies is fogging our vision and preventing us from seeing the wider picture, making society feel that the answer to recruitment and radicalisation is a simple, immediately remedied problem.
We have always found proxies to blame for societal ills, making them obvious or convenient scapegoats. Whether it be rap music for gang violence or video games for school shootings, we assign responsibility to the obvious because the reality is too difficult or requires more than a cursory glance to understand what is really driving these alien or unimaginable conversations and actions. Human nature wants radicalisation to be a social media problem, not a cultural or societal issue.
If we look at the recruitment of fan-boys and foreign terrorist fighters we see that recruitment of vulnerable individuals and thugs continues much as it did before the advent of social media. It always comes back to the same.
That’s why in Belgium the vast majority of foreign terrorist fighters come from the same few towns, and why in France we can map fighters to the same arrondissements in cities. There will always be outliers, and social media is most definitely a tool manipulated to reach those individuals with no links. But in almost all cases you will find that those travelling to join Daesh for example, know someone who is already there, know someone who is financially supporting terrorist networks, or is part of the franchise that Daesh has created.
Foreign fighters are not a new phenomenon. Just look at the Spanish civil war, or more recently Afghanistan, Chechnya or Bosnia. These fighters did not have the use of social media networks. In all of these conflicts it was the cause which mainly drew recruits, but you also had those who joined because of the draw of the fight. The bloodlust. You also had those who wanted to be part of something bigger, whether they really understood it or not.
This is not to say social media companies do not have a role to play. Radicalising conversations, and the sharing of violent, extremist and disgusting materials are certainly taking place on their platforms and social media undoubtedly makes it easier for conversations to take place, and offers ease and speed.
So how can the tech and social media world help?
During the Olympics, Twitter was assiduous in its removal of any content that breached or impinged Olympic copyright. As a result some of the criticisms of its removal of terrorist propaganda seem justified and fair. But the way that Twitter focused on removing the content, not the users, is the same way we must approach terrorism in social media.
It’s redundant taking down twitter handles. We end up in a cycle of endless whack-a-mole which social media companies can never be expected to keep up with. All this does is drive terrorists from public and open platforms by shutting down their accounts, or in the extreme, shutting down these channels in the entire country. It would drive the terrorists and their recruiters underground and on to more encrypted and more difficult-to-track platforms. Intelligence collections rely on the use of more mainstream channels to light up the activities of terrorists, sometimes even highlighting their locations as we’ve seen with Daesh’s geo-locators. Intelligence gathering is key to these groups.
Many terrorist organisations and groups within them use different hashtags to communicate. Instead of cracking down on the accounts we should flood their hashtags with counter-narratives - or even better accurate information. If they are claiming success in an area of Iraq where they are pretending to have a stronghold, flood the hashtag with images of the reality showing Iraqi Security Forces in control. At the very least let’s flood their hashtag with celebrity chat and other trivia so they find it difficult to unite and gather momentum.
We need to understand how terrorists really communicate, look at the words they use and their motivation. Only then can we target the behaviours and ideology - and that’s not just a job for social media, it is for all of us to stand up to hatred, on any platform.