It has been a long time since it was first suspected that future wars will become less about human contact and more about the digital world. In the meantime, drones have substituted pilots in conducting airstrikes and world powers have been paying a lot of attention to cyber security. The Internet is where Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS recruit most of their members and supporters. Terrorists don’t have to come in from another country and attack it. They can attack their own country from within and that is where the danger lies. Western European countries have taken in lots of migrants, getting many to criticize the move as bringing terrorists from Syria into Europe. However, the attackers in most of the terror attacks in Europe in the past year were citizens or residents of European countries way before the war in Syria began. The suspects of the November 2015 attacks in Paris were French citizens of Moroccan decent born in Belgium. The suspected culprits of the attacks in Brussels this March were Belgian and Swedish citizens with Arab roots. The man who drove a truck into the crowd in Nice on Bastille day was Tunisian and lived legally in France for over ten years.
These young men were mostly influenced online. That is what ISIS did when they started recruiting followers through social networks. For years, they have been using social media to attract the like-minded and influence the political thought of youth with the strongest focus on young Muslim men. Facing requests from governments to halt terrorist activities on their websites tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet have teamed up with researchers to look into counter-extremist propaganda. If a person can be radicalized online, they can also be de-radicalized that way, according to the assumption.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue published a study entitled The Impact of Counter-Narratives which analysed three social media campaigns that targeted potential extremists. The first one, called Average Mohamed, helped an NGO used a cartoon to question extremist views among youth in Somalia. The second one focused on white power groups in the United States and encouraged young people to defect from them. Finally, Harakat-ut-Taleem focused on creating anti-extremist documentaries and content to discourage Taliban recruitment in Pakistan.
During the experiments in October and November 2015, all three projects received over 378,000 video views and over 20,000 interactions such as comments, likes, re-tweets and shares. Each of the platforms performed differently, but they all contributed to de-radicalization, according to the report:
Facebook produced the greatest reach, video views and engagement for each campaign. YouTube provided the lowest cost-to-views ratio and the highest rates of viewer retention. Twitter provided the second largest number of video views across platforms as well as the highest engagement-to-impressions ratio.
Interaction on social media and encountering views contrary to one’s own encourages critical thinking. Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet all worked on locating individuals that may become extremists and overflowing their feeds with anti-extremist ideas. The companies even gave $30,000-worth of free advertising credit for the experiments. So, could big tech companies rather than governments become the new leaders in combating terrorism? Time will tell.