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Islamic State and Social Media: Ethical Challenges and Power Relations

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  • January 23, 2015

    Social media is being increasingly used as a tool of propaganda by terrorists, with platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube becoming critical outlets for dissemination of information. There is an upsurge of an online information war, which groups like the Islamic State (IS) seem to be winning. Social media can be perceived as the oxygen of publicity, and seemingly serves the IS´ agenda well with regard to the recruitment of individuals and indoctrination of impressionable youth. Due to the instant upload of materials, the IS has been able to demonstrate the fear-factor as well as illustrate its sophisticated ability to get messages out to a worldwide audience. What challenges lie ahead in this online information war?

    As demonstrated last year, the IS has, rather successfully, built and deployed an army of radical extremists. It has been incredibly deft in using social media as a tool for recruiting foreign fighters, while at the same time intimidating rival powers. The influence of the IS has become far-reaching and its audience is not restricted to Muslims alone. With IS-videos being broadcasted on Western television, in addition to its Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, the group has literally been able to perform on the world stage and capture the attention of sympathisers, journalists and adversaries alike.

    Even though these radical Islamists represent a minority group among Muslims, what is evident is how they no longer can be ignored as a result of a globally interconnected environment. Their use of the social media as a means to spread radical messages and violent attacks is not new per se. However, the way the IS has adopted mainstream media as a tool to recruit foreign fighters while causing global fear stands out from the propaganda campaigns of other terrorist groups. As neatly put by P. J. Crowley, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, “It’s an old game that’s being played in a new way.”1

    A special report on the IS, published by the Soufan Group, reveals how the group’s operations are organised around its media department. Led by Abu Amr al Shami, this office consists of an army of writers, bloggers and other people, and their only focus is the monitoring of the social media. Not only are they releasing professionally produced videos of beheadings, they also present warmer images of “the good life” in the “Caliphate”. Contents are used in an engaging way in order to connect with supporters; hence, the pictures of fighters holding animals, engaging with children, eating chocolate bars or carrying out social services – images that recruits can relate to.

    Twitter stands out from the rest of social media platforms, as it is frequently employed by the IS. Before the IS came on the scene, Twitter was mainly used as a secondary resource of communication. But, at present, the IS is almost exclusively making use of Twitter as a tool of recruitment and a forum for campaigning against Western countries. One of the reasons for the IS´ success on social media is its encouragement and organisation of so-called “Hashtag” campaigns by exploiting trending hashtags such as #AllEyesonISIS or #worldcup. By doing so, the group is able to increase the visibility of its own message, as people searching for trending hashtags unintentionally stumble upon pro-IS tweets.

    Furthermore, the fruits of globalisation seem to be highly appreciated by these terrorists, as their way of communicating is no longer restricted to a specific geographical area. Modern technology allows for global and instant outreach, and one might argue that social media adds fuel to the fire of jihad and fans the global paranoia about terrorism by making available the virtual realm for propaganda. Virtual jihad serves the IS well as ideas circulate within minutes. As Walter Laqueur explains “if terrorism is propaganda by deed, the success of a terrorist campaign depends decisively on the amount of publicity it receives.”2

    This is where the discussion on ethics comes in. The IS frequently releases graphic videos of, for instance, beheadings, on social media. Once these videos surface, an ethical debate related to the sharing of violent imagery and how these social platforms should deal with the situation, arises. According to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJs) and their Code of Ethics (2014), there should be a guideline for handling the dilemmas of vicious propaganda, and four pillars are key in this regard:

    • Seek truth and report it;
    • Minimize harm;
    • Act independently;
    • Be accountable and transparent.

    Pillar number two underlines the need to “balance the public´s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”3 Hence, the need to find a balance between the need to inform the general public about the IS’ activities, and having empathy for the victim’s families and the distress of the audience. People’s legal right to access social media and available information does not necessarily imply that it is ethically justifiable to publish this material because of the harm it may cause for people affected.

    Ethical codes are crucial tools to support the society we live in. However, these codes are ultimately insufficiently productive in a society where people are geographically spread and unaccountable. Our previous understanding of communities has, with time, altered, and this places a limitation on the construction of universally agreed upon ethical guidelines. Also, challenges arise when there is a lack of consensus and efforts to decide which views/standards to prioritise prove inconclusive. The fact is that, norms and standards on how social media should approach terrorism are different from country to country, and even people to people. Consequently, irresponsibly published materials will evidently surface when values are being ignored on the grounds of publishing an incident before others.

    Thus, the posting of the Foley and Sotloff videos has sparked debate. These horrific videos were quickly removed, as social media are entitled to manage unlawful use of content that infringe upon their established rules. But the blocking of websites and user accounts may infringe upon freedom of expression. It is important to keep in mind that the war against the IS ought not to trespass the foundations of a democratic society, and should not be employed as a tool to restrict the freedom of speech or press, for that matter. Secondly, the ethics around banning such videos lacks consistency. An ethical dilemma occurs when the social media’s right to block or remove what is considered offensive content, according to its own rules, gets linked with the notion of consistency. Indeed, social media platforms, like YouTube and Twitter, immediately removed the videos and suspended accounts supportive of IS´ actions. However, the lack of consistency exists due to the fact that blocking of content or user accounts is not evenly applied. A search for “beheading” on YouTube leads one to results that are similar to the Sotloff and Foley imagery; videos featuring executions of Syrians, Saudi Arabian or Palestinians. Why are these videos still available when they, too, clearly are in conflict with social media rules? There seems to be a certain laissez faire tendency among social media platforms that allow their users to tweet or publish offensive content, even as they occasionally step in and remove content or suspend accounts.

    Lastly, another key challenge relates to power relations. One might argue that social media has changed the notion of power. Power has changed from the ability of A to physically triumph over B in combat to the ability of A to persuade B to conduct an act that B otherwise would not have done. Within virtual jihad, it seems that, to a certain extent, information is more powerful than physical weapons given that information is transferable. In modern society, governments no longer have monopoly control over the dissemination of information, with the social media enabling common people to freely transmit information. Given this reality, governments have to take remedial measures . However, bureaucratic inertia prevents governments from acting fast. In this context, the development of social media conveys the impression that those who manage to stay on the offensive, and use the power of information to their advantage, may eventually have the upper hand in the online information war.

    Tuva Julie Engebrethsen Smith is a former Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi, and currently an Independent Researcher based in Oslo, Norway.