THE BLOG

Extremist Groups Are Using Social Media Strategically

19/06/2014 11:15 BST | Updated 18/08/2014 10:59 BST

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are notorious for mass-killings of civilians in Iraq. They have managed to seize Iraq's second-largest city Mosul and have vowed to take control of Baghdad. What's troubling is not just how a handful of insurgents managed to retake an entire city while the US-trained Iraqi army fled, but rather the usage of social media by ISIS to control what information is publicised about them.

In using social media efficiently, ISIS attracts sympathisers globally and maximises its amplification. Unlike previous terrorist organisations who were only given a platform by mainstream media outlets and had to adhere to mainstream media's narrative and political frameworks -- ISIS now operate in an entirely unregulated social media platform that gives them sufficient room to manipulate potential sympathisers into believing that they are fighting for a justifiable religious purpose. The danger of this is not just the attraction of potential supporters but the fact that a terror organisation could use modern technology and strategically reveal information about their activities.

There are two underlying factors which is going entirely unnoticed. The first is, ISIS wants to break down the public moral in Iraq -- further deepen sectarian tensions -- instil a sense of fear that they are mightier and stronger than the Iraqi army by using modern tools to target a younger generation. It has an impact on how the Iraqi public perceive ISIS and they are emerging as a unified stronghold of politicised social media users and even if the Iraqi army eventually manages to regain control from areas they have seized, their presence on social media is unlikely to disappear. Secondly, they are emerging as online collaborators covertly and are forging support in different countries, whether in small or big numbers. The point is, and this might seem far-fetched at first -- social media gives people the ability to unite on similar ideological and political outlets -- not bound by geographical restrictions.

Similar to other terror groups, ISIS draconian ideals that are perpetuated by all of its followers use religious justification -- misuse of Islamic religious books and out-of-context justifications are rampant on many online forums and ISIS easy access to internet are making the dissemination of these false ideals easier than ever.

Many would be forgiven for thinking that the problem is merely ISIS extremist ideals being disseminated online, but the truth is with the emergence of extremist groups using the internet for their own purposes, we will inevitably have governmental institutions attempt to control free speech and this creates a dangerous precedent (in many cases this precedent is already emerging). On one hand it justifies dictatorial regimes that have censored bloggers, activists and journalists using "national security" as a reason, and on the other hand the moral high ground is lost by respective governments on censorship within dictatorial countries.

ISIS and other groups affiliated with them are gaining a high platform on social media and this allows them to get their message across accurately -- on their own terms -- attracting sympathisers to their cause and giving them the power to act as a "unified force". The usage of social media by extremist groups on this scale is unprecedented and new. No one quite fully comprehends the consequences that will ensue from ISIS mobilisation of social media users for their cause. Regardless of whether it is journalists attempting to follow the news or not, their follower base on Twitter and Facebook continues to grow.

The Iraqi government closed down Twitter and Facebook in most areas to control the flow of information from ISIS -- ending potential collaboration between different groups. Alongside this, Twitter has closed down several ISIS accounts and continues to do this, although ISIS Twitter accounts still appear under different names.

Censorship on the internet does not create a healthy platform for any meaningful engagement but unfortunately the misuse of the powers of social media creates a problem for respective governments in dealing with terror groups. Are social networking sites justifiable in closing down ISIS affiliated accounts? Perhaps sometimes we can agree that certain groups should not be give a platform to justify mass-killings on an unprecedented scale.