Social media, especially Twitter and YouTube, are providing terrorists with the platform to broadcast their violent acts globally. Charles Sturt University lecturer and researcher Jake Wallis explains how new media is being used to spread the word.
I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the extended period of violent political unrest locally known as “The Troubles”. In 1985 the United Kingdom’s then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher suggested that terrorists should be deprived of “the oxygen of publicity”. In today’s digital media environment, extremists are breathing deeply.
Digital networks enable extremists to reach global audiences. New media can be used to create and disseminate hard-hitting, emotional and bloody imagery. In combination, digital networks and new media create opportunities for extremist groups to create a narrative sympathetic to their ideology and agenda. In these ways extremist groups can engage in public media spaces while marginalised from mainstream traditional broadcast media such as TV and radio.
During the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, Al-Shabaab terrorists were able to present a commentary over the micro-blogging network, Twitter, until their account was ultimately shut-down. Reflecting the conflict on the ground, a form of information warfare emerged; with the Kenyan authorities using social media to assert that they had the situation under control and Al-Shabaab using Twitter to create a disruptive counter-narrative.
These are powerful tools for those on the fringes of the political spectrum. Al-Shabaab has used networks and new media to radicalise and recruit potential supporters and operatives, not just in Africa but in the West.
The revelations of the whistle-blower Edward Snowden relating to the surveillance of social media data by the United States National Security Agency illustrates the significance that state security agencies place on the analysis of the digital footprints that extremist groups leave online. Perhaps there is a role here for civil society organisations to intervene, to counteract the process of radicalisation. Google, the search engine corporation, is spearheading a number of initiatives in this area, bringing together several civil society groups involved in this kind of work.
In my own research I see digital communication tools becoming increasingly integrated into our political practices; in the mainstream by political parties as well as civil society organisations. The emerging democratic practices facilitated by the collaborative and engaging properties of new media are creating new modes of political participation. It’s not surprising that these properties are being appropriated by those outside of the political process.
New media is a conduit here but the potential for radicalization is perhaps more about social inclusion than social media. Perhaps it is about both. Health research is increasingly recognising the significance of social networks in the perpetuation of preventable disease. Interventions in social networks can be crucial in preventing obesity and diabetes. This may be the place for civil society intervention in the process of extremist ideological radicalization; through the creation of stories that highlight the social and emotional cost of political violence. It is here that social media might help us build social inclusion.
Jake Wallis (@jake_wallis) is a lecturer and researcher at Charles Sturt University’s School of Information Studies. Jake’s research explores the relationships between digital networks, new media and political action.