October 15, 2019
IntelBrief: Disinformation and Terrorism
Most of the discussions that take place around the concept of disinformation--false information spread deliberately to deceive--typically focus on the role of nation-states like Russia and China. But violent non-state actors, including terrorist groups, rely on disinformation as well, and some groups have developed fairly sophisticated disinformation capabilities. Their objectives can vary but are almost always some combination of spreading fear and terror, recruiting new followers to the cause, radicalizing individuals, and confusing and distracting public safety officials in order to sap finite resources. In Pakistan, there have been terrorist disinformation campaigns against polio vaccinations. There is an added danger that terrorist disinformation may contain malicious code, intended to infect the hard drives and networks of entities that access the material online.
As has been documented in the aftermath of deadly terrorist attacks, including the 2017 Manchester attack, ‘sock puppets,’ or online identities used for deception, were highly active in attempting to spread messages with an anti-Islam agenda. While in some cases the objective was to cause confusion, in others it was merely to exacerbate tensions in society, to the supposed benefit of those responsible for the disinformation. Disinformation can take many forms, including the use of manipulated images and videos, and digital engineering attacks, including ‘spoofing,’ ‘truthing,’ and ‘social proofing.’ Western countries have been slow to respond to the advent of disinformation, and when they have reacted, the measures put in place to inoculate against the corrosive effects of disinformation have mostly been ineffective and in some cases counterproductive. So-called counternarratives to push back against terrorist disinformation have been widely panned, with few successful examples of note.
The so-called Islamic State has relied significantly on photoshopped images intended to sow fear and confusion; images of terrorists transposed against backdrops of major Western cities, intended to suggest that an operation could be imminent, or merely to inspire lone actors to launch an attack. The Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower have been used in IS images and propaganda in the past. Back in 2014, IS in Libya used social media to amplify disinformation that it had taken full control of Derna, a port city of 100,000 on the Mediterranean. While IS did indeed capture some government buildings, it was far from full control of the city as a whole as the group boasted, a claim that was picked up and repeated by mainstream media outlets including CNN.
In 2017, the Islamic State claimed involvement in the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, NV, the single deadliest incident of mass murder on American soil, although the Federal Bureau of Investigation has since dismissed any involvement by the group. Analysts still debate why IS would make false assertions that Stephen Paddock, the assailant responsible for the Las Vegas attack, was a ‘soldier of the caliphate,’ particularly when the group had not been known to issue deliberately erroneous claims of responsibility. Some speculated that the group was merely seeking to keep its name in the news cycle, especially as it suffered battlefield losses in the Levant. But it does make sense when viewed through the lens of disinformation, which deliberately attempts to confuse an adversary and divert precious resources and manpower to dealing with threats. In the case of Las Vegas, IS also spread fear and have a devastating psychological impact on its target audience, an objective that has been greatly enhanced through the use of disinformation-related capabilities.
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