ATbar Terrorist Use of Social Media: Threats & Responses – ICT16

Terrorist Use of Social Media: Threats & Responses – ICT16

12/09/2016 | by ICT16  

The session was part of the ICT's 16th World Summit on Counter-Terrorism: "Unpuzzling Terrorism". Terrorist organizations' use of the internet evolved from utilizing websites, to interactive media, to social media, and now also the dark web. International pressure should be placed on major players in the cyber world to prevent the spread of radical messages and ensure that moderate messages are more easily accessible than their extremist counterparts. A balance between free speech and countering terrorism must be maintained, but free speech should not be used as a disguise for incitement and radicalization based propaganda.

Dr. Eitan Azani, Deputy Executive Director, ICT and Head of BA & MA Specializations in Counter- Terrorism, Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy, IDC, Herzliya, Israel

Mr. Avi Issacharoff, Middle East Analyst, Walla News and the Times of Israel, Israel

Brig. Gen. (Res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, Former Director General, Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Israel

Lt. Col. (Res.) Avital Leibovich, Director, American Jewish Committee (AJC), Jerusalem & Former Head, Interactive Media Branch, Spokesperson’s Unit, Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Israel

Prof. Gabriel Weimann, Professor of Communication, University of Haifa, Israel

Moderator: Ms. Smadar Perry, Senior Editor for Middle East Affairs, Yediot Aharonot, Israel


This session addressed the uses of social media by terrorist organizations and the challenges they create. It was centered on the issues of incitement and the legal dimensions of the fight against terrorism in social media. In terms of incitement, the speakers emphasized that the message being spread had remained fairly constant but the terrorists have acquired tools to spread their message more effectively. Likewise, the speakers marked the different stages of terrorist use of social media to create incitement and the exponential increase of Jihadi websites since 1998. The speakers also seemed to agree that the Dark Web represents an enormous challenge to combating terrorism as it not only allows for incitement and communication but also for the acquisition of weapons and funding. The panelists then spoke about the difficulty of preventing radicalization when the balance between fighting terrorism and violating freedom of speech is so delicate. Finally, the speakers all agreed on the importance of applying pressure on companies to censor incitement on their platforms.

Ms. Smadar Perry moderated the panel, guiding the panelists throughout the discussion, raising questions and comments. She inquired regarding the role of intelligence in intervening in situations of online incitement and radicalization, as well as about the use of visuals and the lack of ability to censure them from the world's eyes. Ms. Perry made sure to mention the clash between incitement and publication of terrorist materials and both freedom of speech and the right of the public to know. Perry concluded the panel by noting the women in terror organizations. She notes these women, who (successfully or unsuccessfully) join the Islamic State or other organizations, and the lack of state intervention to support these women in their plight.  

Professor Gabriel Weimann outlined loosely the stages of terrorists' use of social media. He first spoke about the dramatic exponential increase of the use of websites by terrorists by comparing the 12 websites used by terrorists in 1998 to the 9,800+ websites used by terrorists today. He divided this process into four stages which traced the transition from use of non-interactive websites to the use of interactive websites, social media and the dark web. He explained that “terrorists migrate to social media” because it is interactive, trendy and there are no gatekeepers to the platforms. He then gave a brief description of the Dark Web and the challenge it presents to law-enforcement. He gave examples of how the Paris and Belgium attackers bought weapons from the Dark Web and how difficult it is to regulate illegal activities through this medium.

Dr. Azani spoke of the actual structures of the terrorist organizations that use social media. He emphasized the transition from a “physical” to a “virtual” recruitment process that facilitates targeting not only core groups but also more distant circles. Even more so, he emphasized the existence of networks that support “lone wolves” by detailing the different mediums terrorists can use to recruit and incite people. Dr. Azani concluded his presentation by emphasizing the need of using law as a tool to fight terror in social media. He spoke about the importance of holding companies responsible for the content being shared on their platforms and the need of creating international laws that pressure companies to censor their platforms.

Brig. General Yossi Kuperwasser stated that although the messages spread by terrorists had largely remained the same, the methods of spreading them had become more efficient. To illustrate this point he referenced the tapes and posters that were used by terrorists before they acquired mass media capabilities. He also spoke about the delicate balance between protecting the freedom of speech and allowing incitement on social media. Furthermore, General Kuperwasser spoke about the possibility of using platforms such as Google to combat radicalization by providing alternative interpretations to specific passages in the Koran.

Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich described what she referred to as the Holy Trinity of challenges created by terrorists' use of social media. She began by stating that the potential for virality when using social media increases by ten times its potential in print form. This potential for virality is especially evident regarding ISIS’s masterful use of content, which travels incredibly quickly. She then stated that social media could also serve as a call to action by inciting masses to participate in violent protests. Lastly she explained the importance of using visual elements to push a narrative and create incitement. She explained that this last challenge is particularly important because visuals remain the longest in our memory.

Lastly, Middle East analyst Mr. Avi Issachoroff spoke about the image and brand terrorist organizations create through social media. He first discussed the difference between the ability to take credit for attacks now versus the 1980's when groups had to create fliers and posters to claim credit for attacks. Furthermore, Mr. Issachoroff emphasized the fact that groups can use social media to magnify their abilities and their brand without actually having corresponding capabilities. This is especially true for groups such as Hamas, who use videos to exaggerate their ability to govern Gaza. Furthermore he stated that social media could actually serve as way for communities to vent their frustrations without the need to engage in violent activities.