Today, to join a terrorist movement, you don’t need to become a member of an organization. As the New York Times’ David Brooks writes, you just need to be one of their Twitter followers.
Earlier this month, in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, the George Washington University Program on Extremism released a report on ISIS’ use of social media to recruit extremist followers. The report, “ISIS: From Retweets to Raqqa,” used 71 case studies of FBI targeted, extremist individuals in the United States and looked at emerging trends in demographics and social media platforms.
The demographic findings showed that the average age of ISIS recruits was 26, with one-third of the cases involving recruits 21 years old or younger. 61 individuals were male; 10 were female. The tempo of ISIS arrests has increased, with 56 of these 71 individuals arrested. In total, the FBI has 900 open investigations in all 50 states, the largest number of extremist terrorist activities since 9/11.
In total, the GW report examined more than 300 accounts of people believed to have a connection to ISIS. As the findings reveal, after becoming a Twitter follower, individuals are groomed online and eventually move from open to more secure platforms. From there, ISIS acts as a “travel agent” for individuals who want to join ISIS abroad, providing contacts to call when recruits arrive, detailing which items to bring, and instructing on what to say when crossing into Syria. Likewise, recruiters can use Twitter to encourage followers to attack at home.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt recently spoke about the need to guard against social media’s tendency to create echo chambers where individuals whose ideas deviate from the main message are ousted from the community. The Internet breeds tribalism, which can help push positive social change. But in the case of ISIS, this means followers can quarantine themselves, interacting only with extremist content and users. Schmidt suggests:
“We should build tools to help de-escalate tensions on social media — sort of like spell-checkers, but for hate and harassment. We should target social accounts for terrorist groups like the Islamic State, and remove videos before they spread, or help those countering terrorist messages to find their voice.”
Schmidt’s outspokenness on this is cardinal. Support from the private sector (and directly from social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google) is exactly what the House Homeland Security Committee called for in its “Rise to Radicalism” hearing in November. The sort of material that can be found on ISIS sites is forbidden by these companies’ policies, but closer partnerships between social media companies, DHS, FBI, law enforcement and other stakeholders may be essential in monitoring and closing these accounts. Of course, “spell-checkers for hate and harassment” is the sort of phrase that could foster backlash from groups worried about First Amendment rights. But a concentrated effort on ISIS accounts could curtail this issue, especially if private sector aid is voluntary, as Schmidt seems to suggest.
While Schmidt and others seek remedies, some are taking direct action online. The hacker collective Anonymous dubbed last Friday, “International Trolling Day,” launching a fight-fire-with-fire campaign in which Anonymous calls for the online insulting and harassment of ISIS, using tags like #ISISTrollingDay, #Daesh and #Daeshbag, as well as a collection of spirited memes.
So we have hackers, Internet companies, law enforcement, intelligence and a host of other stakeholders rallying to action. They recognize the threat from the ISIS message. Leaving Anonymous aside, this is a chance for the private sector and Congress to band together. So why have we not seen a more proactive solution?
FBI Director James Comey said the tech industry not allowing government access to Twitter is not a tech issue; it’s a business decision. But Schmidt and others in the Valley are working towards solutions and calling for partnership. It’s a moment for Congress to inject some much needed leadership and not through talking points on their Twitter accounts. With voters putting terrorism as a priority over the economy, constituents are completely on board with action, leaving Congress no excuse to do nothing. It’s time to act and do more than just tweet about it.