December 16, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Countering Online Extremism

• The lone gunman in the Sydney hostage standoff is another reminder of the viral nature of online extremism among vulnerable target populations of unstable people

• The recent arrest of one of the more prolific Islamic State cyber-supporters, @ShamiWitness, in India, highlights the fundamental challenges for governments to craft effective programs to counter online extremism

• @ShamiWitness had over 17,000 followers; the U.S State Department’s main twitter effort to counter extremism, @ThinkAgain_DOS has over 19,000: yet the two accounts only shared 719 common followers (or 2%), a sign the State effort is not reaching the target audience.

• Given the self-selecting nature of social media, it might be that the best tools to counter online extremism are actually not cyber related: community engagement trumps virtual engagement.


UPDATED & CORRECTED: A previous version of this IntelBrief contained an incorrect number for "common followers" between the @ThinkAgain_DOS & @ShamiWitness. The number has been corrected to 719 (2%) common followers.


Early indications about the gunman in the Sydney hostage standoff suggest three things: he had a long pattern of criminality; he was unstable; and he appears to have been among the latest in a trend of individuals who have embraced online the violent ideology of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. The first two are entirely local; the third, the viral nature of online violent extremism is global and presents governments with critical new challenges.

The current approach to countering violent extremism online is not working, but not for lack of effort. Many governments rightly see the virus of violence spreading through social media and they are attempting to use these social media platforms against the extremists and their potential supporters. This is problematic for several reasons, one of which is that the target audience is the one most unlikely to engage with government social media outreach. A recent arrest of an extremely prolific and potentially influential Islamic State cyber-supporter best illustrates the challenge.

Mehdi Masroor Biswas aka @ShamiWitness was arrested in Bangalore, India last week after several years of anonymously posting increasingly extremist arguments in English (and some in Arabic). At the time of his arrest, he had 17,676 followers, and many of them were exactly the target audience of groups such as the Islamic State. His followers engaged in back-and-forth conversations, sharing violent images and justifications. His followers were the people that governments most need to engage with before extremism can set in.

The U.S State Department has a significant social media program called “Think Again Turn Away” with the Twitter account of @ThinkAgain_DOS. It has 19,275 followers. Yet between the 36,946 followers of both accounts, there were only 719 accounts in common (2%), and a large number of those were journalists or academics. The two circles of followers very rarely intersect. This is understandable since it is unlikely that vulnerable people feeling disaffected or disconnected from their real life would choose to follow an openly government-run social media site.

This is not a unique problem; any government social media program will struggle to reach the really vulnerable through the extremely self-selecting and self-sorting nature of social media. The Internet is the perfect vehicle for extremist propaganda but it might not be the best vehicle to counter it.  Governments using logic and facts to counter extremist arguments are unlikely to succeed—extremism doesn’t care about logic. If the target audience was swayed by logic, it wouldn’t be the target audience. It’s understandable that governments would struggle in countering the threat online, which only stands to worsen.

It might be that the best tools to counter online extremism are offline: community-level outreach, sports, clubs, schools, etc. This is problematic because governments have historically performed poorly in sustained and meaningful community outreach for a variety of reasons, one of which is that detecting people in the process of pulling away from society is much easier in hindsight than in the course of daily life. Indicators or warning signs are clearer after the fact, especially since a significant portion—but not all, which is very troubling—of the target population will lack an attentive and wide social circle. More worrisome is that as the trend of online extremism worsens, the lack of a ‘prototypical target’ will present governments with insurmountable odds. Providing guidance and funds to the smallest local level, to empower credible voices and options, in order for communities to best serve their populations, might prove more effective than a social media program that doesn’t reach the right audience.


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