Should we knock terrorists off the Internet? Maybe!

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.”

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I’ve been dismissive of focusing too much energy on disrupting terrorist websites and their more recent migrations to social media like Twitter and Facebook. However, the case of Shabaab on Twitter is quite instructive. I still have a few questions.

  • 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.

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