In recent years, Somalia’s al Shabaab has been an early adopter of Twitter and been known in the terrorist world as a leading user of openly available social media rather than closed forums to spread its message. Many analysts saw this as a worrying sign; Shabaab tweets could radicalize previously uninfected young minds. However, Twitter, unlike other platforms, allowed for the open countering of Shabaab by the Kenyan military and the censorship of Shabaab as the group was kicked off the platform for violating terms of service (as described by @intelwire).
More recently Twitter has again undermined Shabaab as the group’s defectors, realizing the hypocrisy of the Shabaab’s words when compared to Shabaab’s actions, have taken to the social media platform to voice their frustrations. Apparently Shabaab struggles with the same problems as the U.S. government and other open democracies – controlling message.
Omar Hammami’s persistent countering of Shabaab on Twitter has likely eroded the group’s appeal amongst foreign fighters seeking to join the struggling group. Now, Hammami’s band of Twitter dissenters appears to have expanded and the “Muhajir” in Somalia have taken to the Twitterverse to express their resentment to Abu Zubayr (Godane) – Shabaab’s leader. The “Muhajir” (foreign fighters) continue exposing the rift between local Somali Shabaab members and the global foreign fighters that have joined the group only to be treated as second class. Here, @jawshan7, a Shabaab loyalist, and @abuu_haajir, a Muj dissenter, illuminate the divisions in Shabaab – in awful Twitter English.
So what does Shabaab do when foreign fighters in their midst behave badly on Twitter? The same thing American parents do to their teenagers – They take away their cell phones!
So the mighty Shabaab, rather than taking care of business on the front lines, is instead Twitter stalking its former “Muj” trying to control their speech. Ahhh, the double edged sword of Twitter.
J.M. Berger published a fantastic challenge to conventional wisdom this week providing some insightful and unique analysis of recent ‘Found experiments’ occurring with terrorists’ use of the Internet and social media. In his Foreign Policy article “#Unfollow”, @intelwire describes the latest revelations of al Shabaab being booted from and then reconstituted on Twitter. Thus far, the outcome of this recent event has countered conventional wisdom about terrorists being denied access to the Internet.
Just a few weeks back, Twitter closed the account of al Shabaab, @HSMPress, for violating Twitter’s terms of service. Shockingly, a terrorist group (al Shabaab) used Twitter to issue “a direct threat of violence”. No way! Who saw this coming?
@intelwire points out that there have been two arguments about why the U.S. should not push terrorists groups offline.
“Stopping terrorists from spreading their propaganda online (using U.S.-based Internet companies to boot) seems like a no-brainer to many. But within the terrorism studies community, there are two common and sincere objections to disruptive approaches for countering violent extremism online.”
As expected, al Shabaab quickly returned to Twitter under a new account name similar to its past one. However, Berger has noted through some excellent charts that so far, Shabaab’s audience has not been sufficiently resurrected. As of today, they have about 10-20% of the audience they had before being knocked off line. At this rate, Shabaab will end up spending a large amount of time regenerating its audience on Twitter suggesting the disruption approach would limit terrorist groups’ reach while also wasting their time. Cool!
As for the loss of intelligence, @intelwire’s piece notes that disrupting Shabaab’s Twitter account may actually result in an intelligence gain. While many followers were lost, the most hardcore supporters of Shabaab returned very quickly effectively outlining where Shabaab’s greatest support resides.
“The former followers who quickly signed up for al-Shabaab’s new Twitter account — just 882 users — have a serious interest in the al Qaeda affiliate’s activities….. We know these users are more likely to be very interested in al-Shabab, and the number is manageable enough that a single analyst can look at each account individually to make a more sophisticated evaluation.”
Is Shabaab an anomaly or a trend? – @intelwire compares Shabaab with the fall of al Qaeda forums in recent months. However, Jubhat al Nusra has maintained a consistent and growing presence online. So, are the challenges found by al Shabaab attempting to reclaim its online audience the result of effective disruption or a side effect of the group’s general decline and loss of audience?
On social media like Twitter and Facebook, are terrorist groups inadvertently censoring themselves? – Recent takedowns of terrorist websites have resulted in online extremists encouraging their followers to migrate to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook where they can establish individual accounts that are more difficult to disrupt. However, in doing so, extremists are actually censoring themselves as social media sites are governed by terms of service that restrict the violent images and language so cherished by extremists and critical for recruitment. So, when extremists move to social media, are they actually censoring themselves and over the long run taming their messages and reducing their effectiveness?
Is the greatest counter to extremists online actually the public? – Government struggles at disruption of online extremists as it requires considerable resources and creates a tension with civil libertarians that worry about government violations of citizen privacy and restricting freedom of speech. However, the public has no such limitations can identify terms of service violations and report them without much restriction. So, Americans, if you don’t like extremists on line, help Twitter and Facebook police them by reporting violations.
Still, maybe one question here is why Syria didn’t do this sooner. Its uprising long ago exceeded Egypt’s and Libya’s in severity by the time those countries had instituted their own blackouts. One possible explanation is that Syria has been far more assertive online, using it as a tool for tracking dissidents and rebels, and sometimes even tricking them into handing the government personal data using phishing scams. President Bashar al-Assad has a background in computers, unlike the much older Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gaddafi, and once even directly mentioned his “electronic army.” Assad’s regime may have seen opportunity as well as risk on the Web, where perhaps the Egyptian and Libyan authorities saw primarily a tool of the uprising. Or, perhaps the Syrian simply feared the economic consequences of an Internet blackout, or lacked the means to conduct it.
Rumor also has it the regime may be going into a serious engagement with the rebels.
So, for the US Government, what is the implication? The first thing I thought was that the U.S. should quickly build a capability to deploy air-droppable Internet and Mobile Phone hotspots into denied areas. These would need to be low cost and self powered (solar maybe). If the U.S. wants to support uprisings and revolutions, especially without arming militias, we should help rebels keep their information campaigns going via social media as this is the lifeblood of these Arab Spring uprisings. Just my two cents.
Update 0800 EST – An alternative Internet from Afghanistan
The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.
Here’s some of the Internet outage charts everyone is excited about on Twitter and an old New York Times graphic showing Internet monitoring by country’s around the world.
Left on its current course, America’s sensibly cautious policy toward Syria is unfortunately going to come to an unhappy end: The jihadist wing of the opposition will just get stronger and gain more power to shape Syria’s future.
If the United States helped coordinate funding, the Free Syrian Army would have several advantages: A better-organized opposition might defeat the regime, it would be better able to govern a post-Assad Syria and it could help the United States control Syria’s chemical weapons. That’s a trifecta — three good things in one.
Finally, Ignatius concludes with an interesting take on how the jihadists in Syria fund their operations through charitable gift packages from the Gulf.
Syrian jihadist battalions continue to raise their own money directly from wealthy Saudis, Kuwaitis and Qataris. The report to the State Department explains how this works. “The battalion rep or commander travels to Turkey, where he meets Gulf individuals or Syrians who live in the Gulf. The battalion presents ‘projects’ that need sponsorship, for example: targeting a checkpoint costs $20-30K, while targeting an airport cost $200-300K. . . . A video taping . . . is required to provide evidence of the operation.”
An interesting read….survey results of what you believe should be out tomorrow.
I have lots of questions for the Facebook Revolution this morning: Where are you? I thought this was supposed to be about freedom, democracy, taking steps forward with a country oppressed by a dictator. Instead, the social media wave that supposedly brought the revolution in the beginning may in fact be a barrier to progress for pro-democracy groups. Instead of taking to the streets in mass the way the Muslim Brotherhood has, you’ve retreated to the comfort of your computer hoping to tweet a better future. Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Next Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” argument, shunned in the days of the Arab Spring, is starting to look a lot stronger over time. Overall, I’m still more hopeful for Libya – that fought for and won will be cherished and defended.
For those that missed the debate a couple months back, I will re-post the question this morning “Who should we call al Qaeda?” (See below) Feel free to cast your vote and you should be able to see the results after you vote. For the summary of the first round of voting see this post and for the resulting discussion just a few weeks back see this post. Here’s the question for those that haven’t seen it several weeks back.
update as of 0900:
I’ve already gotten some confused comments about my stance in the post. My conclusion is this, I’m a fan of the Arab Spring and believe democracy in the Middle East is a good thing. But can the West have the stomach to see it through? Can the U.S. identify and seek its real national security interests in each of the weak democracies while remaining true to its values? I only say this as I believe it will be weak democracies, not failed states, that will present us the most troubling terrorist threats in the near future. Mali, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia will struggle with terrorist groups and unlike in places like Somalia, the U.S. will not have the latitude to directly intervene.
“In the hypothetical scenario described below, would you call the following group “al Qaeda” or an “al Qaeda affiliate”? A simple yes or no answer. After you vote, you’ll see the results of everyone that chimed in. Would you consider the following hypothetical group of armed men to be “al Qaeda?”
A group of heavily armed men occupy a remote area in an African/Middle Eastern/South Asian country.
95% or more of the groups’ members are local people from the country where the terror group resides.
The group publicly states their intent to institute governance by Sharia law.
2-3% of the group’s members served as foreign fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2001 fighting in coordination with al Qaeda, the Taliban or al Qaeda in Iraq.
The group calls itself “Ansar al (fill in the blank)” or “Lashkar e (fill in the blank)” but don’t mention al Qaeda in their name.
Some of the groups’ spokesmen, at some point in the past, have publicly praised Osama Bin Laden.
It is completely unclear whether any of the group’s members have publicly declared bay’a (allegiance) to Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The group records videos of its attacks. At times, these videos show up on jihadi web forums. At times, these videos randomly show up on YouTube.
The group’s funding streams remain unclear. News reports of unknown reliability claim the group gets some funding from kidnapping & local extortion and some from Persian Gulf donations.
“The algorithm comes courtesy of a fascinating paper [pdf] from UCLA and Hewlett-Packard’s HP Labs. The researchers Roja Bandari, Sitram Asur, and Bernardo Huberman teamed up to try to predict the popularity — which is to say, the spreadability — of news articles in the social space.”
This new research provides the formula for those seeking to make a perfect news tweet.
1. Be Credible!
Just like in real world conversation or print new articles, a relic of the pre-Internet Stone Age days of the late 1990’s, credibility matters. Tweets that travel through cyberspace must come from a credible source.
“Technology was the most tweetable news area, followed by Health and the ever-shareable Fun Stuff. Also impactful was the name recognition of the text. You can know with some certainty that a story about Lady Gaga will do well, and you can know with even more certainty that a tech story about Lady Gaga will do well. But what led most overwhelmingly, and most predictably, to sharing was the person or organization who shared the information in the first place”
So after all of the “Social Media will change the world” hype about how you have to approach marketing on the Internet in a totally new way, guess what:
“Brand, even and especially on the Internet, matters….Online, the researchers are saying, the power of the brand is exactly what it has been since brands first emerged in the Middle Ages: It’s a vector of trust”
2. Don’t be a Drama Queen!
Here’s the next finding which flies in the face of what I’ve been told by marketing people. Turns out, you don’t need to hype your tweet and put X-games emotion into everything like it’s a Mountain Dew commercial.
“Emotional language doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to predictable sharing. So, by that logic, a tweet that calmly describes what you’ll get by clicking on a link — “Here is some news about Lady Gaga” — will have about the same attentional impact as a tweet that HYPERBOLICALLY SHOUTS IT. Even within the tumult that is the Internet, when it comes to framing the news, objective language does just as well as emotional.”
In conclusion, Twitter content behaves a lot like all other communication content.
I’m relentlessly plowing away on survey data this week generating the next round of analysis for the “al Qaeda: One Year After Bin Laden” crowdsourcing experiment. Polls are still open and I am still seeking input so cast your votes here on the state of al Qaeda a year after the death of its founder.
For the last several years, businesses and narcissists have been trying to capture a measure for assessing individual influence in social media as a means to monetize the new information highway paved by Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. The goal for developing these measures of influence is to connect with consumers and specified populations in a streamlined, customized way with pinpoint ads. National security types might call these “Surgical Advertising Strikes” that efficiently and effectively use key (identified) influencers to further disseminate messages to target audiences. Well, the simple quantitative metrics relied on thus far (friends, followers, tweets, posts, re-tweets, etc.) may in fact not be that effective in assessing influence. This excellent study finds that:
“Influence” doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does. In the age of the social-media celebrity, a glut of Twitter followers or particularly pugnacious sampling of pithy updates are often the hallmarks of an influencer. But new research suggests that influence is situational at best: as people compete for the attention of the broader online ecosystem, the relevance of your message to the existing conversation of those around you trumps any innate “power” a person may have.
I’m sure these findings will make some folks at Klout and Topsy angry as their models appear to rely very much on simple quantitative metrics.
The messages that achieve longevity aren’t just the ones that have the right phrasing but those that are most relevant to the existing conversation of the people near them in the ecosystem….
According to co-author Vespignani, having millions of followers does not denote an important message. Rather, the messages with the most immediate relevance tend to have a higher probability of resonating within a certain network than others. Think of it as “survival of the fittest” for information: those tweets that capture the most attention, whether related to a major geopolitical or news event or a particular interest, are likely to persist longer.
The article concludes:
The research suggests that it doesn’t fully matter who you are or how many connections you have, but what you’re saying relative to the existing conversation is what really matters in spreading knowledge online.
So, much like we’ve seen in almost every influence arena, it’s the quality of content, not the volume of content that matters. I’ve recently heard some say they need to “increase the social media presence” of something to increase its influence. I’ve heard this repeatedly in Washington, DC. That’s true to an extent, social media has taken on a new place in influence. However, key influencers not participating in social media still do and always will remain in our society. For example, I often ask the overzealous “where is VP Dick Cheney’s Twitter account at?” or “what did the J.P. Morgan CEO’s Facebook page say this morning?” BLUF: Influence can still exist outside of social media as well.
This week, I watched an interesting video of Sherry Turkle and her TED Talk “Connected, but alone?“. She discusses the negative aspects emerging from society’s addiction to social media and mobile messaging. Turkle was once a strong advocate for how technology could empower identity. However, Turkle now identifies many of the downsides of our new digital life noting some of the effects she personally experiences in her relationship with a daughter:
“We’re letting [technology] take us places that we don’t want to go.”
Turkle makes several excellent points that I’ve considered at times when assessing both the new digital society and myself. Social media can feel connecting and disconnecting at the same time. Turkle continues on:
“We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”
I recently wrote a paper entitled “The Future of Terrorism: Treating the Disease of the Disconnected.” One of my central points with regards to recent notions of a spike in homegrown extremism is that violence across the United States, in aggregate, is going down. However, a good portion of the violence that remains comes in the form of homegrown violent extremism (HVE) and lone gunmen shooting up schools and workplaces. Many of these perpetrators express their frustrations online. While trying to connect themselves to larger causes and ideologies (Brevik, Hasan, etc.), we later find that these individuals were in fact extremely alone, isolated and vulnerable. Their violence stems as much or more from frustration over their social isolation rather than their commitment to the objectives of an extreme ideology they recently encountered online.
Turkle, I think, rightly points out that;
“If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely. And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.”
My assertion is that our attachment to social media might very well lead to more depression in American youth and subsequently more violence from previously calm segments of America. This depression will manifest itself in violent ways we have not witnessed in past generations. This new era of violence will be:
The result of attention seeking behavior more than ideological commitment,
In the form of individuals (lone wolf) more than groups,
Found in middle and upper socio-economic strata with access and addiction to social media (rather than poor and/or urban communities),
Correlated with non-traditional indicators of violence. For example, criminal history, in the past, has been a strong indicator of future criminal perpetrators. In the isolated, social media generation, perpetrators of lone wolf violence will be less likely to have a criminal record and more likely to have a history of depression.
For law enforcement and security enthusiasts, Turkles discussion should spark conversations about what to look for in emerging violence. Some have advocated that we should look for individuals supporting “al-Qaeda’s ideology”. But will that really be a useful method for anticipating the social media generation’s strain of violence?
An alternative approach might instead look for 1) those places with high incidence of cyber-bullying, youth depression, high levels of prescriptions in anti-depressant drugs and 2) those reports by school security officers and private security noting behavior changes and isolation on the part of students and co-workers.
I think these alternative indicators related to the disconnect of the social media generation deserve more research. I also believe these indicators will be more helpful (and less narrow minded) than current U.S. CVE indicator lists that are dominated by al-Qaeda jargon. I believe there is little that separates the next 18-year old active shooter in a local high school and the wannabe 18-year old homegrown, al-Qaeda lone wolf recruited via the Internet.
In conclusion, I highly recommend Turkle’s talk and applaud her for noting caution that undermines the technology community she helped pioneer. It would have been easier for Turkle to continue boosting technology for her own benefit rather than pointing out its weaknesses in order to help others.
Ryan takes the discussion one step further noting that Wael Ghonim is a social movement leader whether he likes it or not. He says:
“Whether or not Ghonim wants to acknowledge it, he is a leader, although he was a more important one than he is now, having been overcome by the superior “organizational weapon” of the Muslim Brotherhood political machine and others who are not so shy about their status as leaders.
Ghonim, a business and marketing major in college, wasted no time in churning out his book. However, Ghonim has not proven to be what many had hoped: a viable, young leader bringing democratic change to Egypt. I admire Ghonim’s efforts in leading the Facebook uprising, but even he admits that good virtual leaders don’t necessarily correlate into great physical leaders of rebellion. Ghonim reads a passage from his book noting:
“I’m not a people person, I’d rather communicate with people online…in short, I’m a real life introvert and yet an Internet extravert.”
I really like this discussion and admire Ghonim for admitting his own limitations.
Ghonim also illustrated two of the crucial weakness of the Twitter uprisings seen across the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movements. First, the reluctance by the Facebook generation to collaboratively and physically discuss, compete and compromise as a organization around a central agenda and stated long-run objectives. Twitter and Facebook were excellent in achieving the immediate objective of an uprising – a critical first step in a revolution. Consistent with crowdsourcing theories, Ghonim and his compatriots used Twitter and Facebook to solve a coordination problem: show up at this location, for this reason and do this act. However, this uprising fell flat after the fall of Mubarak as the Facebook revolutionaries failed to organize collectively and physically to devise a longer run strategy with deliberate objectives. The Facebook revolutionaries could have done this, but chose to return to their laptops and cellphones in hopes the change they wanted would materialize through their Internet connections.
The second glaring weakness of the Twitter uprisings comes from the Facebook revolutionaries outright aversion to developing, appointing and following leaders. Ghonim states in the NPR interview:
“This revolution has no leader, has no face to it, and the collective effort of all the Egyptians is what matters at the end of the day”
I assume living under an oppressive dictatorship would make one loath leadership in general. However, both the Occupy Movement and in many cases the Arab Spring have rejected the notion of leaders to their own demise. Notions of leaderless movements are the rage on social media platforms and corporate America loves talking about flat organizations. But, those structures work well only in certain situations where motivations and values are shared equally amongst the organization’s members and objectives are clearly defined. Revolutions are conflicts and during the fog of war, sustaining the organization’s values, the motivation of the troops and keeping actions in line with objectives requires leadership. In the security vacuum created by Egypt’s horizontally organized Facebook uprising, physical-vertically structured organizations (e.g. Muslim Brotherhood) seized the initiative to pursue and achieve their collectively determined objectives.
I still hold hope and see value in the Facebook/Twitter uprisings of 2011. But Wael Ghonim and his leaderless non-organization may have to change their approach if they want to realize the change they so relentlessly tweet about.
For the Ghonim’s audio interview, which is a good listen, click here.
And for a funny take on the leadership vacuum of the Occupy Movement, I highly recommend this Stephen Colbert clip.