World AffairsWorldwide
Terrorism Without BordersWhy terrorists' use of social media poses both threats and challenges
Hwang Celine  |  celinehwang@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2015.09.08  00:05:48
트위터 페이스북 구글 카카오스토리
   
 
   
 

AFTER PROMISING his parents that he would study hard to pass the high school qualification exam, an 18-year-old South Korean boy surnamed “Kim” left for his long-awaited trip to Turkey. However, just two days after his arrival, his Korean guardian reported that he was nowhere to be found. After confirming Kim’s disappearance, the police found various pieces of evidence demonstrating that he most likely entered Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Since 2013, Kim had been using the ID “sunni mujahideen” on Twitter to follow pro-ISIS accounts and retweet ISIS’ propaganda. Additionally, Kim communicated with a man in Turkey by using Surespot, a secure mobile messaging app that has allegedly been used by various ISIS-related individuals. With all these social media platforms at his fingertips, it is unsurprising that Kim found his way into ISIS. In fact, through social media, terrorist groups like ISIS have lured other vulnerable individuals into supporting their cause.

 
 
Infiltration into a New Realm
It has been estimated that 90% of terrorist activity on the internet takes place on social media and networking sites. Through such sites, extremist groups are able to recruit members, exchange information on how to arrange attacks and spread their propaganda around the world. Hence, various terrorist groups have and currently are using social media to make contacts all over the world in order to expand their reach and, consequently, their power.
In particular, the terrorist group ISIS has used social media extensively. In 2014, ISIS uploaded promotional videos on YouTube urging Muslims to post photos, messages and videos in support of ISIS on their social media accounts. Additionally, ISIS has been particularly active on Twitter, posting photos and statements emphasizing its military strength and territorial advances in Iraq. Because Twitter is built around “tweets,” or short messages under 140 characters, users can quickly read and repost, or “retweet”, certain “tweets.”
 Going a step further, in April 2014, the group created an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings to spread its message to a wider audience. When users sign up for this app, they give ISIS permission to send tweets through their personal Twitter accounts. These tweets are sent out through users’ accounts as soon as ISIS media managers approve them, but are spaced out so Twitter does not detect them as spam. With this app, in one day, ISIS sent out an all-time high of almost 40,000 tweets as members marched into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014.
   Other than ISIS, the terrorist group al-Qaeda has also utilized social media, but in a significantly different way. Although ISIS was part of al-Qaeda for a few years, ever since the two groups split, ISIS has more successfully used social media to its advantage by operating accounts on widely-used platforms such as Twitter. Unlike ISIS, al-Qaeda relies on relatively older platforms. For instance, al-Qaeda publishes issues of its online English magazine, Inspire, a few times each year. Through this magazine, al-Qaeda targets possible “lone-wolf” terrorists with articles like “Car Bomb Inside America.”
By utilizing social media, terrorist groups can attract a higher number of new recruits from all over the world and disperse greater amounts of propaganda at a faster speed. Furthermore, there is now a growing possibility that those who have never encountered terrorists in real life can “self radicalize” through this online world of terrorism. As Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director John Brennan stated to Reuters, “The overall threat of terrorism is greatly amplified by today’s interconnected world…where a lone extremist can go online and learn how to carry out an attack without ever leaving home.” In fact, analysts have suggested that the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing acted by themselves after learning how to build pressure-cooker bombs from reading an article in Inspire magazine.
 
Tackling the Threat Head-on
Because terrorist groups’ use of social media is posing great threats, both the government and social media platforms are making attempts to thwart the use of social media by these groups. In response to criticism that it was not proactively hindering terrorists from posting propaganda, Twitter has taken measures to restrict terrorist activity. In January 2012, Twitter strengthened its policy by announcing that it would give itself the ability to censor tweets in certain countries when the tweets risked breaking local laws of that country. Furthermore, Twitter recently updated its abuse policy to prohibit users from promoting terrorism.
Other social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook have taken more stringent measures to combat terrorists’ usage of their sites. In December 2010, YouTube added a “promotes terrorism” option under the “violent or repulsive content” category so that viewers can flag videos that uphold terrorist values. Similarly, Facebook removes posts related to terrorist organizations, allows users to notify the company of posts that promote terrorism, and hires screeners to review contents.
   In addition to social media companies, the U.S. government has taken the initiative to ensure that more stringent regulations are set in place. On July 1st, the Senate Intelligence Committee in the United States approved a bill that requires social media operators to report contents posted by suspected terrorists to federal authorities. The measure has yet to be voted on by the full Senate, but has been approved in hopes that it will help intelligence and law enforcement officials detect threats from terrorists.
 
Not as Simple as it Seems
   Although it seems like the solution to these issues is straightforward, the future holds various challenges. As organizations and individuals pressured social media companies to block terrorists’ use of their platforms, freedom of expression has become an issue. Social media companies now have to allow individuals to access information about terrorist groups’ activities while ensuring that these terrorist groups do not exploit their freedom of speech to advance their campaigns. However, distinguishing between terrorist groups’ propaganda and posts by news organizations and legitimate social media users is difficult. As former Google executive Andrew McLaughin told The Washington Post, “An ISIS video of hostages being beheaded is both an act of propaganda and is itself a fact. And so, if you’re a platform, you don’t want to suppress the facts. On the other hand, you don’t want to participate in advancing propaganda.”
Additionally, according to Jho Wha-sun (Prof., Political Science and International Studies), a nation’s security and individuals’ privacy are often at odds. “To strenghten the nation’s security, an individual must give up some of their privacy. For example, installation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) devices allows for easier detection of crimes, but they can infringe on individuals’ privacy by recording each individual’s every action.” Similarly, countries face the same dilemma in attempting to respond to the threat of terrorism on social media. “If a country proactively attempts to monitor social media to check for terrorists’ presence or influence, individuals’ privacy becomes a concern. Even those who are not associated with terrorism or terrorist groups may face disadvantages." In the case of the bill passed by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, individuals’ privacy is also an issue. Considering that the vast majority of users on social media are not proponents of terrorism, social media companies’ monitoring of these users’ activity would be considered to be an invasion of privacy.
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What was unimaginable a decade ago is now the norm. Using social media, terrorists can spread their propaganda to the rest of the world and entice people around the world to support them. Though several measures have been taken to combat terrorists use of social media, these measures have been controversial because they may limit freedom of speech and privacy. To build a nation that is not only secure, but also values its peoples privacy, a compromise between governments and their citizens must be reached. As citizens of modern society, it is ultimately our responsibility to educate ourselves on terrorists alarming exploitation of social media. 

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