Twitter for Terrorists
BY ALEXANDRA LEE
On Friday the 13th of June the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIS or ISIL) took to Twitter to announce their invasion into Iraq, including graphic images of mass killings.
Within 24 hours the posts and photos had been retweeted hundreds of times and circulated by all major news organisations.
In the weeks leading up to the event, the group had been using the social media platform to announce their invasion plans and recruit supporters. And in one day, the group’s message was broadcast to the whole world.
This unprecedented war on the digital front has begun to challenge how news is gathered and distributed.
ISIS is not the first terrorist group to use social media.
Somali militant group al-Shabaab, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and the terrorists that carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, all made use of Twitter as an extended media arm of their organisation.
Dr. Axel Bruns, Professor of Media and Communications at the Queensland University of Technology says the transition from traditional methods of communicating propaganda to social media is becoming a natural progression for terrorists.
“Any military activity involves a propaganda war and has been the case for the 21st century,” he explains.
“Terrorist organisations have always used media to put forward their case and garner support. Social media is now the next step.”
The very nature of social media is what is driving this transition, says Professor Jim Macnamara, Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney.
“Social media by their very nature are open media…it’s only to be expected that various voices will use social media, particularly groups that feel their voices are not being adequately or accurately reported in mainstream media.”
Macnamara believes the shift to social media is changing news.
“Social media is very dynamic and still evolving, and we’re not sure of its future direction. But social media is quite fundamentally changing the nature of media in our society.
We are seeing now journalists using Twitter...Facebook pages (and) accessing information from websites. And that sort of ‘media morphosis’…is a natural evolution and I think it will continue.”
Dr. Bruns attributes this media transformation to an influx of surplus information from both genuine news reporting from media outlets, and civilians who use social media to share their experiences.
Source: Global Voices
He says citizen journalism and the sharing of information by the general public on social media are now “inputs to the overall coverage of a particular conflict or story”.
But these inputs may not always be beneficial to a news producer or consumer.
“Images from the Iraq conflict may tell the truth, be staged, or take events out of context.
It becomes problematic for journalists to sift propaganda from real information.
We are getting more information from war zones than we have in the past, but the quality or reliability of that information is now worse than it has been in previous conflicts.”
Macnamara shares this view and warns, “There are concerns about the future of journalism…(particularly) misinformation – when information bypasses gatekeepers.”
Journalists have long been the gatekeepers of accuracy and reliability when it comes to news. Information sourced from social media and distributed by media outlets are now commonly prefaced with disclaimers such as, 'these images have not been verified'.
And when such information is often violent and graphic, the social media account that shared the information is often shut down or suspended.
When Twitter suspended an ISIS associated account, international whistleblower Wikileaks condemned the move, championing free speech over censorship.
A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment on individual accounts due to privacy and security reasons but said their terms of service prohibits “direct, specific threats of violence against others”.
But how useful is shutting down a social media account when it comes to terrorism? Global Voices, an international network of citizen journalists that advocate online rights and freedom says it’s merely a short-term response.
Ivan Sigal, Executive Director of Global Voices says, “It is not a solution, either to the violence that is part of terror, or to the underlying grievances.”
However the Australian government is showing greater involvement in online terrorism, recently announcing new anti-terrorism measures at the cost of $630 million over the next four years.
Highlighting an increase in Australians involved in terrorist activities, Prime Minister Tony Abbott made clear references to digital terrorism.
"I think over the last couple of months every Australian has been shocked at the evidence on the Internet of Australians participating in terrorist activities in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. We have all seen truly shocking imagery of Australians born and bred doing absolutely horrific things,” he said.
And in July the Australian Federal Police (AFP) issued arrest warrants for two Australians believed to be fighting for ISIS.
Mohamed Elomar and Khaled Sharrouf were using Twitter prior to the arrest warrants being issued, with postings including threats to Australia and photos of themselves with decapitated heads.
Both Twitter accounts are now suspended.
Under the new proposals the collection, analysis and reporting of information gathered online – especially from social media – is under further scrutiny.
When asked about the extent of their role in monitoring online content on social media, both ASIO and the AFP said they do not comment on operational methodologies and capabilities.
However the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) confirmed online “pages which advocate the doing of a terrorist act” are referred to the AFP.
The regulating body also says prohibited content or “offensive and illegal material hosted on the web, peer-to-peer networks, and other platforms such as social media networks” are subject to a take down notice.
Amid growing public concern over surveillance and privacy, are also other issues that need to be addressed, says Professor Macnamara.
He believes regulation should only extend to protecting people against offensive information and free speech must be maintained.
“We have to accept that free speech often means that people who we don’t want to speak will have a say. We can’t only claim it for ourselves.”
For terrorist related organisations, social media is increasingly playing a key role at disseminating information to the public at large and Segal says it is an intentional and integral part of their asymmetrical warfare.
“Modern terror tactics almost always include amplification aspects in media - they are meant to be seen and almost always seek to exploit media in order to amplify their effects,” he says.
Whether or not terrorists employ social media as a call to action, for propaganda or mass communication, they have redefined the media landscape.