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Five ways to fight ISIS online

Combating extremism requires more than military might. A digital strategy is key, but needs government, the private sector and NGOs to get onboard.

By: /
24 February, 2015
By: Kyle Matthews
Executive director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

The global growth of trans-national religious extremists groups in the last few years has had a deep impact on international peace and security. But none have garnered as much media coverage and international angst as the Islamic State, the Sunni Muslim extremist group also known as ISIS.

In order to recruit new fighters and donors to its cause, and also to radicalize individuals in the West with the aim of carrying out terrorist attacks, ISIS consistently uses social media to broadcast the crimes against humanity it commits. ISIS has harnessed platforms like Twitter and YouTube to “shock and awe” governments, the news media and individuals across the globe.

As the global village grows smaller due to processes of international migration and the internet, we are witnessing international crises in faraway places become inextricably intertwined with domestic security concerns. In response to a surge in mass atrocities in countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya and Nigeria, and terrorist attacks in Western cities including Sydney, Ottawa, Paris and Copenhagen, many governments have started to acknowledge that the problem of “religious extremism” is metastasizing.

Last week U.S. President Barack Obama hosted the Countering Extremist Violence Summit in Washington. One of the objectives of the high level gathering was to “identify concrete ways to build upon ongoing initiatives aimed at countering extremists’ perverse message and new and innovative solutions to the challenges posed by violent extremists, especially online.” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden remarked: “We’re here today because we all understand that in dealing with violent extremism, that we need answers that go beyond a military answer. We need answers that go beyond force.”

ISIS has become the global poster child for death and terrorism. If the international community if serious about halting its violence, then it must acknowledge that fighting the group online is as important as fighting them on the ground. It is not a coincidence that immediately after attending the summit in Washington the French Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, travelled to Silicon Valley to urge Google, Facebook and Twitter to be more cooperative in making their services more hostile to religious extremists.

But what strategy should be implemented in fighting ISIS online? Here, I propose a simple five-point plan as a blueprint for direction:

1. Government must play a role

National governments need to create strategic institutions, and identify experts and point people with the goal of formulating policy, streamlining coordination efforts, and liaising with stakeholders.  The United States, for example, just announced it would be providing more resources to the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which currently has a number of “digital outreach teams” that are comprised of individuals fluent in numerous languages and are able to counter those espousing violent and radical views online. Others governments should take note.

2. Innovative NGOs need funding

Governments and philanthropists should fund organizations working to blunt ISIS’ activities on the internet. Just as western governments might not be the best placed to produce innovative projects or churn out enough material quickly enough, support given to NGOs might lead to the creation of a digital product or initiatives that go viral and achieve maximum impact.  ISIS has dominated social media and is able to produce content much quicker than bureaucracies can.

3. Challenge the extremist narrative

Perhaps the most important issue is the need to develop counter narratives to what ISIS is selling. Of course, none of this is new. Back in 2013 Ed Hussain of the Council on Foreign Relations argued that one possible strategy is “Initiating the around-the-clock presence of a professional, well-informed network of web-savvy Muslims who are active in Arab and Muslim chat rooms and on social media, refuting al-Qaeda propaganda with factual and scriptural arguments.” Hussain noted “the purpose is not to dissuade jihadis (that would be a bonus), but to ensure virtual audiences do not assume that extreme narratives are unchallenged and hence preponderant.” All extremism begins with an ideology.

4. Unmask online profiles

It is essential that action is taken to expose, disrupt and make public ISIS members on social media, as well as their cheerleaders. Last year a business executive in India was exposed as the person behind the country’s most prolific ISIS Twitter account. He was arrested and then apologized, with no proof that he has since urged others to wage holy war.  Recently, the hacker group known as Anonymous, following the murder of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, declared a social media war against jihadist groups online and recently shut down over one hundred such Twitter and Facebook accounts.

5. More private sector cooperation

Last but not least, national governments must apply more pressure on tech companies to ensure they do a better job at policing their platforms and take stronger action to minimize the chance their services will not be used to showcase crimes against humanity, lure children to Iraq and Syria or incite individuals to murder their fellow citizens. While Facebook, Twitter and Google (owner of YouTube) are publically traded companies who have an interest in ensuring they adhere to the highest standards of corporate social responsibility, it might be time to admit that if your products are being used as a weapon of war, then more stringent measures need be adopted.

No easy solutions exist to eradicate violent extremism. However, a global strategy can be put in place to confront ISIS and other like-minded groups. Inaction is not a wise policy choice. We must not abandon the internet to those whose long term goal is nothing but a nightmare of apocalyptic proportions.

Kyle Matthews is part of The Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab, a policy hub working to combat genocidal ideologies online. His team is currently fundraising to present ideas and findings at the Global Media Forum this June in Germany. Visit their crowdfunding page here.

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