The Platform


Jihadist groups are thriving online.

Recent years have witnessed an upsurge in the malicious use of social media sites to spread radical propaganda online by jihadist groups. The pandemic has further amplified the conundrum as these groups have increasingly expanded their activities on social media and messaging platforms. What policies should be designed in order to combat misleading information and jihadist propaganda? The answer to this question is particularly vital for global security.

In the wake of technological developments, several jihadist groups have taken advantage of social media platforms to convey messages and disseminate disinformation. For instance, Al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based terrorist group, established its own Twitter account in December 2011 with the express purpose of circulating its ideology and propaganda. The Islamic State terror group has also utilized social media sites to achieve its purposes. ISIS has promoted its campaigns, spread official messages and radicalized the public on different social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp.

Although the proliferation of jihadist propaganda online is not a new problem, the pandemic has created a favorable opportunity for jihadist groups to glorify violence and promote conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Jihadist propaganda is now spreading as exponentially as the virus itself. Indeed, according to the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, the amount of misleading content spread by jihadist groups grew considerably from January to August 2020. Taking ISIS and Al-Qaeda as examples, they declared that COVID-19 is “God’s wrath upon the West.” The purpose behind the disinformation campaign was to manipulate public opinions and undermine trust in governments.

With the current pace, jihadist groups seem to be winning the cyberspace race due to their increasing capabilities to spread propaganda online. By spreading online propaganda, ISIS has been successful in attracting more foreign fighters. From 2,300 fighters joining the group in 2014, this figure rose to 25,000 in just half a year. Recent studies also show that conspiracy theories spread by jihadist groups during the pandemic have had a huge impact on young and vulnerable people.

Why do jihadist groups decide to utilize social media sites in order to spread their propaganda? The first reason is that social media sites enable these groups to send unfiltered content to their target audience instantly and directly. Moreover, they can tailor this content to suit different types of audiences, which, in turn, further increases the reach of their message. Another reason is that, as oversight is lax, jihadist groups are able to circulate false information. Consequently, Internet users, who read objectionable posts, are likely to think that these posts are factually correct. These groups also make use of the ability to remain anonymous to evade detection.

To counter the proliferation of propaganda requires bolder and stronger actions. Although some governments have launched efforts to counter propaganda, these countermeasures are generally ineffective. Still, there are several ways in which governments can mitigate the spread of this propaganda.

First, it is necessary for states to design policies with the aim of developing citizens’ skills to think critically and evaluate independently the information encountered online. One recommendation is to integrate media literacy into the curriculum in schools. In fact, the United Kingdom has already launched an initiative called NewsWise in order to teach young children about media and information navigation. This initiative needs to be launched globally. Additionally, states should develop specific guidelines and hands-on training for the public on fact-checking and the identification of misinformation.

Second, governments should put more effort into developing counter-narratives. Most content is relatively simple and merely reports facts and figures. One thing that governments can do is to integrate more audio and videos into their social media campaigns. In addition, they can create more room for storytelling by sharing the real stories of those who have been directly impacted by acts of terrorism. Further, governments should encourage credible and influential counter-speakers from local communities to respond to and refute content.

Finally, to fight content online, cooperation from social media companies is a must since governments alone cannot completely keep jihadist content off of social media. For example, Facebook has been deploying both artificial intelligence and a team of experts to detect terrorism content on its platform. Other companies in the industry should also adopt appropriate solutions to keep problematic content off their platforms. Furthermore, there is a need for collaboration among all social media and technology companies. Key areas that need collaboration include the creation of a shared industry database and the exchange of best practices for combating jihadist propaganda.

Terrorism continues to pose a threat. The magnitude of this threat has been even greater due to the dissemination of jihadist media and propaganda. Unless more effective countermeasures are implemented, the threat of terrorism will be persistent.

Nguyen Hoang Anh Thu is a senior research fellow at Vanguard Think Tank for Trans-Pacific Relations (VTT). She is also pursuing a Master's degree in Transnational Governance at European University Institute.