InformationWars: Assessing the Role of Social Media in the Dissemination ofJihadist Ideology in Syria After 2011
InformationWars: Assessing the Role of Social Media in the Dissemination ofJihadist Ideology in Syria After 2011
Terrorismis among the topics that are rarely discussed in the public, but thesocial media have provided a platform where like-minded jihadists cancommunicate even without meeting physically. Studies show that 90 %of the terror activities occur on social media tools (Weimann, 2011,p. 84). The social media tools have become a preferred tool forsharing jihadist ideologies because participants in the terrordialogues are able to disguise themselves, get a direct contact withjihadists, make their contributions in terms of ideas and resources,and ask questions on recruitment and operational strategies. Some ofthe common social sites used by jihadists include Twitter, Flickr,Facebook, and YouTube.
Thesocial sites are based on the peer-to-peer networks that aredistributed, cooperative, and community driven, which allow jihadiststo communicate with their sympathizers and share their ideologieswith potential recruits (Ishengoma, 2013, p. 3 and Wu, 2015, p. 285).Any social tool or platform for social networking becomes of criticalsignificance to terror groups because they aim at recruitingindividuals with similar social characteristics or demographicfeatures by showing them they have been oppressed by the rest of thepopulation (Rahimullah, 2013, p. 23). This literature review analyzesthe role of social media in the dissemination of jihadist ideologiesfrom the perspective provided by scholars and researchers in theprevious studies, with a focus on the case of Syria.
Apersistent online presence
Jihadistsin Syria used conventional types of media such as the TV and thedistribution of video tapes before the invention of the social media.Fisher (2015, p. 1) conducted a network analysis with the objectiveof determining how Jihadists in Syria and the nearby Arab countriesmaintain their online presence in spite of the government’smeasures to stop the use of mobile phones and social media. The studyindicated that terrorists use the Jihadists use the “swarm cast”technology to redistribute and post content back once it has beenremoved by the site owners and the government agencies.
Swarmcast is associated with three elements (including resilience, speed,and agility) that help jihadists maintain a full time onlinepresence. The analysis of 66 Twitter accounts owned by Jihadistsrevealed that these accounts had about 958 active followers (Fisher,2015, p. 8). These followers facilitated resilience by reposting thecontent once the government closed the official accounts ofJihadists. In addition, the followers were located in differentparts of the world, which reduces the effectiveness of thegovernment’s attempt to control the spread of jihadists’ contentby shutting down the network. In addition, the network analysis ofthe 66 accounts owned by Jihadists indicated that jihadists videoswere downloaded about 100,000 times, which means that the followersof the Jihadists were able to keep the backup content that wasre-uploaded to social media sites once the original content wasremoved (Fisher, 2015, p. 8 and Archetti, 2015, p. 1 and Berto, 2015,p. 4). Agility was achieved by taking advantage of the possibility toswitch from one social media site to another, which implies thatjihadists could share the same content on different sites. Acombination of functions of swarm cast has allowed jihadists in Syriato maintain a persistent online presence.
Socialmedia as a platform for radicalization and recruitment
Severalresearchers have investigated the role of social media in the processof radicalization and recruitment of ne terrorists. Agarwal (2015, p.15) conducted a survey of the content posted on the social media siteand the relationship between the nature of the content andradicalization. The meta-analysis of 100 journal papers andconferences revealed that Twitter and Tumblr are the most commonsites used by terror groups to share messages that aim atradicalizing and recruiting new members. The relationship between thetwo social sites (Tumblr and Twitter) and radicalizing was attributedto the ease of sending short texts and established followerrelationship on these sites compared to other social sites. However,YouTube was found to be the most effective social platform forradicalization and convincing new recruits. This is because YouTubecombines audio-visual hate, radicalization, and extremism promotionmessages that are more convincing that the content posted on othersocial sites (Agarwal, 2015, p. 23 and Bieda, 2015, p. 37). A reviewof articles on the risk factors for radicalization revealed thatshared social characteristics (such as age, race, and religion) playa key role in the process of radicalization. This is because themessages posted on social sites achieve radicalization by spreadinghatred between one social group and the rest.
Anothergroup of researchers focused on the role of social media infacilitating the radicalization of foreign youths who then travelfrom miles away to Syria and surrounding countries to defend theideas that they have been taught on social media. A cross-sectionalstudy of 59 western-origin fighters based in Syria identified thatthese youths were reached by the Syrian-based radicals via Twitter(Jytte, 2015, p. 2). Governments in the developed countries(including the European nations) have managed to control thedissemination of radical messages via the conventional mass media,but the advent of the social media presented a new challenge. Asimilar study identified that the social media has extendedJihadists’ reach beyond what have been perceived to be their coresupport base (North Africa and the Middle East) to the western nation(Veilleux-Lepage, 2016, p. 39). Governments in these countries havefailed to control the penetration of radical messages, which hasincreased the vulnerability of youths, especially those whooriginated from the Arab countries or have some roots on the Arabnations. In addition, the study revealed that more than 70 % of theforeign fighters from western countries re-tweeted messages composedby radicals from Syria, instead of composing original content (Jytte,2015, p. 5). This is a confirmation that radical ideas are sold tothem through the social media, but have no understanding of theorigin of the ongoing springs.
Thenature of the social media content has become a fertile ground forthe researcher, who intends to determine the role of social media inpropagating Arab springs depending on the content of the messagesposted on social sites. Some cross-sectional have focused on therelationship between the purpose and the type of language used toformulate the social media messages (Jytte, 2015, p. 4 and Prucha,2013, p. 19). The study identified that more than 50 % of theradicals used the English Language to design the content thatindicated the declaration of their burning desire to engage insuicide bombing (Jytte, 2015, p. 4). English was used as the mostcommon language of designing the social media content that was meantto instill fear among Americans and Europeans, who are the biggestenemies of the jihadist groups. Another cross-sectional networkanalysis of the Facebook and Twitter accounts provided contradictingresults. The analysis categorized tweets into three, namelyC-revolutionary, C-jihadists, and C-moderate, where tweets done byjihadists were 95 % Arabic, while 83 % of those done by therevolutionary and the moderate groups were 83 % Arabic (O’Callaghan,2014, p. 6). This implies that English Language is rarely used byterror groups, but it is more frequently used by the revolutionarygroups that fight with the objective of establishing a democraticsystem in Syria.
Communicationthat is facilitated by the social media has created what scholarscall the “theater of terror”. This is because messages aredesigned and translated depending on the audience that is targeted bythe jihadists. Jihadists select their targets, not because the targetis their enemy, but because the enemy has the value of a symbolicsignificance (Jytte, 2015, p. 2). The use of English messages aims atintimidating the English speaking nations, while Arabic messages areposted on the social media with the purpose of attracting youths whospeak Arabic in languages. Studies have identified that the socialmedia has become a useful platform that Jihadists use to stageincidents of dramatic violence against their symbolic targets (Jytte,2015, p. 2). The dramatic incidents that are reported on the socialmedia force the mainstream media to play direct or indirect role ofpropagating jihad ideologies as they attempt to report the incidentsin their needs programs (Weimann, 2015, p. 7). Therefore, the socialmedia sites have provided Jihad groups with an opportunity to get anaccess to the mainstream media that had successfully sidelined them.
Theuse of the social mead to disseminate the jihadist propaganda is aneffective strategy that has helped the terror groups to radicalizethe energetic and vulnerable youths. One study investigated theprofiles of the people who are alleged to have joined jihadists onsocial media and identified that their age ranges from 15 years to 35years (Barrett, 2014, p. 16 and Awan, 2014, p. 7). The study alsoidentified a unique trend where the age of the people being recruitedhas been reducing with time. For an instant, most of the peoplerecruited by different terror groups before 2000 were aged between 25years and 35 years, which went down to 18-29 years, and currentfindings indicate that boys as young as 15 years have become a commontarget for recruitment (Barrett, 2014, p. 16). The decrease in theage of potential recruits is consistent with the increase in thepopularity as well as the usage of the social media, which confirmsthat the social media, which is mainly used by the youth, is themajor platform for radicalization as well as recruitment intojihadist groups.
Theeffect of establishing the telecommunication infrastructure
Theease of establishing telecommunication infrastructure has renderedthe efforts of the government to reduce the jihadist’s access tothe internet as well as the social sites futile. For example, it wasreported that Syria had the poorest internet coverage prior the ISISspring, where only a fifth of its population could access theinternet while 60 % of the Syrians had cell phone services (Jytte,2015, p. 4). The government and owners of social sites shutdown theinternet as well as the cell phone services in the affected citiesstarting from 2012, with the objective of preventing the ISIS’saccess to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other social sites. Forexample, Twitter shutdown about 125,000 accounts of jihadists in themonth of February 2016 alone (Yadron, 2016, p. 1). Jihadists wereable to establish their simple infrastructure that allowed themunlimited access to the internet. For example, one of the SyrianJihadists named Abu Fulan twitted a demonstration of assembly ofelectronics used to charge phones and serve as a local satellite linkto the network.
Figure:Phone charging system
Source:Jytte (2015, p. 2)
Byovercoming the obstacles placed by the government with regard to theaccess to the internet, Jihadists are now able to use the moderntechnology to spread their propaganda and share their terrorincidents with the world within seconds. However, a more recent studyindicated that the government efforts to suspend social mediaaccounts operated by jihadists coupled with the destruction of theirtelecommunication infrastructure frustrate their operations. Thisdiverts 10 % of their time to rebuilding their network, instead ofplanning and implementing terror plans (Berger, 2015, p. 55). Theinternational community has reacted differently to the issue ofshutting down telecommunication infrastructure, arresting andprosecution of people found spreading jihadist propaganda via thesocial media. This is because countries like the U.S. are held backby laws that grand the freedom of speech to everyone, while othercountries, such as the UK and Russia are free to prosecute anyonefound using telecommunication infrastructure to incite violence(Cross, 2013, p. 12 and Odhiambo, 2013, p. 126). Jihadists have alsobeen using the “Dawn of Glad Tiding” app to send over 40,000tweets per day, even before the Android and the owners of socialsites can remove them as part of their responsibility for violationof the terms of service (Vitale, 2014, p. 7 Oyeyinka, 2015, p. 150).
Natureof the information shared on the social sites
Thenature of the content posted by Jihadists varies depending on theirintention of the individual person who is posting it on the socialsite and the prevailing circumstances. Jytte (2015, p. 4) conducted asocial site analysis of 563 twitter accounts operated by the SyrianJihadists. The analysis included the 10 latest tweets with theobjective of identifying the nature of the message that Jihadistscommunicate on the social sites. The findings of Jytte’s indicatedthat four out of five tweets that were posted while at war madereferences to the dogma of jihadist. It was hypothesized that Twitterwould lend itself to some practical communication between theaffected victims and their friends at home, but the study revealedthat twitter feeds contained a great deal of jihadist dogma includingthe pictures of the account holds pointing to the sky with theirindex fingers, and sometimes in the company of their fellow jihadists(Jytte, 2015, p. 10 and Lindsay, 2011, p. 1).
Dataanalysis of the study conducted by Jytte (2015, p. 11) was achievedby coding the first ten tweets of the selected 563 jihadists. Thisanalysis resulted in the classification of the tweeted messages infive major categories as shown in Table 1 below.
Table1: Analysis of Jihadist Tweets
# of tweets
Examples of tweet content
References to religious edicts and Osama bin Laden
Reporting from the battle
Pictures of slain martyrs and recruitment procedures
Topics on daily life of jihadists
Threats against the west
Direct threats made by jihadists against the western word.
Source:Jytte (2015, p. 11)
Ithas been hypothesized that most of the social media content isdirected to America and its allies, but, network analysis shown inTables 1 indicates that jihadists report more on battle issues,followed by religious beliefs, while threats directed to the westerncountries comprise of only 0.53 % of all tweets.
Roleof social media in the spread of jihadist propaganda
Thecapacity of the social media to serve as an effective tool for thedissemination of jihadists’ propaganda has attracted the attentionof several scholars and researchers. Network analysis conductedstudies shows that foreign jihadists fighting in Syria play acritical role in helping the local jihadists to spread propagandafrom Syria to the western countries (General Intelligence andSecurity Service, 2015, p. 16 and Zelin, 2014, p. 10). The analysisfocused on the case study of the Ditch jihadists, who twitted terrorincidents taking place n Syria either in real time or within a fewhours of occurrence. These foreign Jihadists have introduced theconcept of “peer-to-peer”, where they communicate with theirclose friends in their home countries through the social media withthe aim of radicalizing and recruiting them into terror groups, suchas the ISIS (GIS, 2015, p. 10 and Freeman, 2012, p. 26).
Similarly,a meta-analysis of 100 journal and conference papers confirmed thatthe use of social sites (including Twitter, Tumbrl, YouTube, andFacebook to spread jihadist ideologies and events in real-time hasbeen an issue of interests to researchers and scholars for the last10 years (Agarwal, 2015, p. 2 and Hoffman, 2015, p. 42). This isconsistent with the findings of a study conducted by the U.S. Armyshowing that terrorists ate able to use Facebook and Twitter toexchange real-time information and implement their terror plansbefore the government can intervene (Theohary, 2011, p. 10 and Cuia,2015, p. 56). The possibility of posting provocative messages onsocial sites, which is the shared among thousands of people withinseconds has resulted in the characterization of the social media asthe breeding ground of the modern age jihadists since the socialmedia is dominated by vulnerable youths (Stalinksky, 2014, p. 58).
Networkanalysis have shown that the Syrian local jihadists play the criticalrole of analyzing the messages sent to their media center known asal-Hayat Media Center and supply them to western foreign jihadists.The foreign jihadists then play the role of distributing the contentto their foreign peers and other target audiences (Sean, 2015, p.25). Most of the current studies have focused on the use of thesocial media by terrorists to spread their ideologies before andduring major incidents of terror attack. However, several socialnetwork analysis have revealed that victims of the terror attack andpeople who witness the attack the first ones to post informationabout its occurrence even before the terrorists can announce itsresponsibility in the act (Sjoberg, 2013, p. 265 and Simon, 2014, p.4). However, study concurred with the findings of other researchersthat about 90 % of the terror attacks are planned and executed withthe great help of the communication that is facilitated by the socialmedia sites (Sjoberg, 2013, p. 265).
Thefact that the majority of scholars and researchers have focused onthe general use of the social media to disseminate jihadistpropaganda presents a research gaps. This is because the mechanismthat results in the success of the propaganda that is spread on thesocial media is rarely studied. One of the few studies that focusedon the issue of mechanisms found out that jihadists apply thephenomena known as “jihad cool” and strategy of political jammingto ensure that their propaganda is more fascinating especially to theyouths (Huey, 2014, p. 1). By posting images of martyrs and childrenwho have either been killed or wounded or killed by government’s orthe nations’ (such as the U.S.) drones, jihadists are able toconvince their audience that they are playing the defensive role asvictims of government’s violence (Huey, 2014, p. 1 and Morris,2015, p. 5). Therefore, jihadist social media campaigns are madesuccessful by the use of concepts of martyrdom, self-defense, anddemonization of the target of their terror attacks, all of whichmakes up the pro-jihadist propaganda. This is confirmed in a tweet(shown below) that was composed by a jihadist named Abu Mansoortrying suggest that their use of bombs is tended to bring back theglory that the Arab community have lost.
Onlygoing to bring back the glorious past
Source:Huey (2014, p. 1).
Jihadistsformulate their messages in a manner that influence the psychology,emotions, objective reasoning, and behavior of their target audience(Bates, 2014, p. 2).
Ananalysis of the social media accounts of 190 foreign jihadistsoperating from Syria indicated that most of the foreign fightersreceived information from a group referred to as “disseminators”,and not from their official channels (Carter, 2014, p. 15).Disseminators are unaffiliated sympathizers of jihadists, who playthe role of providing intellectual and moral support to the fighters.Another group of sympathizers (including Ahmad Jabril from U.S. andMusa Cerantonio from Australia) provide spiritual support from thewestern countries, which give vulnerable youths from westerncountries the courage to move to Syria and join the ISIS or Jabhatal-Nusrah (Carter, 2014, p. 15 and Knox, 2015, p. 300). The use ofthe social media, not only allows jihadists to disseminate theirideologies, but also provide their followers with an opportunity totake part in debates and make their contributions (Anti-DefamationLeague, 2016, p. 1 and Fisher, 2013, p. 1). The fact that Syria iswar torn regions with the largest number of foreign fighters isattributed to the increase in the popularity of the social media andability of jihadists to attract more sympathizers (disseminators) whohelp them spread the propaganda as they concentrate on terrorattacks.
Figure2: Sample tweet posted to than the spiritual leader Cerantonio
Source:Twitter (2016, p. 1)
Mostof the studies review in the present paper indicates that the socialmedia has become an important tool for the dissemination of Jihadistideologies. Most importantly, the social media sites have allowedjihadists to reach vulnerable recruits in the western countries andall parts of the world. Although the mainstream media has been tryingto deny terror groups airtime, these groups have managed to use thesocial media in way that pressures the conventional media to airtheir operations in one way or another, thus popularizing theirideologies. In addition, jihadists have gone ahead in terms oftechnology to an extent of bypassing the measures taken by thegovernment as well as the owners of the social sites to shutdowntheir accounts or delete their content. Therefore, the social mediais a fertile ground for breading young terrorist who will continue todisturb the world peace.
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