Terror on the Web

The discourse on terrorism was widely ignored up until the 1990s. It gained international attention only after the events of 11th September 2001. It has over the years become one of the principal security threats of the 21st century. Today, under conditions of globalization, non-state actors, in this case terrorist groups have gained important advantages over states. The current threat posed by the ISIS suggests that terrorism will continue to shape global politics in significant ways. Globalization is built on and depends on the proliferation of computers and microelectronic technologies which helps people to communicate with each other simultaneously and on real time. The ISIS uses modern technology to recruit people from all over the world and the use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) has been particularly important in this case. The internet is a valuable tool for spreading propaganda, relaying messages and motivating people and has been used by the ISIS to its fullest potential.

Social media provides a great platform for terrorist organizations like the ISIS to amplify its messages. The ISIS uses platforms like Facebook and Twitter to organize, communicate and build a sense of community. It also enables them to raise their prestige among other older terror groups. It also helps them cooperate and coordinate between its own troops and allows them to administer the territories under its control. ISIS constantly uses hashtags like the #AllEyesonISIS Twitter campaign while taking over the Iraqi city of Mosul to spread fear amongst people. The advantage of such a strategy is twofold. First: it allows them to instill a sense of inevitability and sheer terror amongst the people of the cities it’s going to take over thereby crippling them psychologically even before the actual attack is carried out. This argument can be exemplified by the mere fact that a militia of less than 2000 ISIS fighters managed to capture a city of 1.5 million during the seizing of the city of Mosul. The proportion of Iraqi soldiers to ISIS fighters being 15:1. Secondly: it points towards the ingenious use of digital marketing strategy. The use of hashtags not only creates instant awareness but also enables users to generate buzz. Once the hashtag becomes a trend, it instantly starts appearing on all social media platforms leading to a drastic increase in visibility and thereby, disseminating the required message which in this case would be terror. This terror can almost be equated to the psychological fear that an actual physical terror attack can invoke in people.

The ISIS uses a number of tactics to reach out to people like choreographed videos, mass executions, civic forum boards, secure messaging and hashtag hijacking. It also uses documentaries and online magazines, press releases and Q&A sessions. All of this goes on to suggest that the ISIS is an organization which is very well structured and follows the model which has worked for leading online figures and brands. We can say from this that the ISIS functions like any other company with a great emphasis on aggressive marketing strategies. It uses advertising techniques like any other brand and actively engages with people through social media.

Terrorist websites also use the imagery and symbols of victimization and empowerment to spread their message. These depictions are useful in arousing the emotions of supporters and potential supporters (Lewis 2005). The ISIS is known to lure people through videos which mimic popular video game themes like ‘’Grand Theft Auto’’, ‘’Call of Duty’’ as well as television shows such as ‘’Homeland’’, ‘’Person of Interest’’ and so on. This not only strikes a chord with young, dissatisfied individuals but also lures them into the world of terrorism by promising them the same kind of experience which they see on the screen. It also possesses a high level of cinematographic sophistication which enables them to produce videos which has the exact same quality as that of American movies. This is known as ‘’Hollywood Visual Style’’ as coined by experts Cori Dauber and Mark Robinson. The fact that the ISIS exhibits such nuanced skills of video and movie-making possesses a unique and altogether new challenge to groups which are trying to combat terrorism. Most of the videos are also devoid of religious imagery or anything related to Islam. One of the possible explanations could be that the ISIS does not want potential targets to feel like they are joining the organization for something as personal or primordial as religion. Rather, these videos cater to the ‘’thrill-seeking’’ aspect of human behavior and perhaps the fact that one gets to be a part of something much larger than oneself.

The ISIS has come up with novel ways of exploiting the internet and possesses an enormous risk which is unique in a number of ways. The means used by the ISIS can be classified as a form of semantic attack which largely relies on distributing wrong information. The use of social media serves two very basic purposes of the ISIS. It is cost effective and caters to a global audience. The ISIS has also proved that it is extremely proficient at using new technology by coming up with innovative hashtags and applications which can be easily downloaded from the internet. It also has a large number of skilled professionals who have a sound knowledge of social media strategies.
Governments and social media platforms are constantly grappling with questions of surveillance and censorship when it comes down to counterterrorism tactics. Mass deletion of accounts by websites like Twitter raises questions of whether these platforms are impinging upon the rights of the people to freedom of speech and expression. Thus, while the debate rages on about how much regulation is required to contain the current threat posed by the ISIS, it also becomes imperative that social media platforms come up with more pro-active and innovative strategies which would help in making these forums a safer space for online users.

– Shruti Das, Second Year.

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