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ISIS and Recruitment using Social Media – Roundtable Report

Posted by Vidushi Marda, Aditya Tejus, Megha Nambiar and Japreet Grewal at Dec 15, 2016 06:40 PM |
The Centre for Internet and Society in collaboration with the Takshashila Institution held a roundtable discussion on “ISIS and Recruitment using Social Media” on 1 September 2016 from 5.00 p.m. to 7.30 p.m. at TERI in Bengaluru.

The objective of this roundtable was to explore the recruitment process and methods followed by ISIS on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and to understand the difficulties faced by law enforcement agencies and platforms in countering the problem while understanding existing counter measures, with a focus on the Indian experience.

Reviewing Existing Literature

To provide context to the discussion,  a few key pieces of existing literature on online extremism were highlighted. Discussing Charlie Winter’s “Documenting the Virtual Caliphate”, a participant outlined the multiple stages of the radicalisation process that begins with a person being exposed to general ISIS releases, entering an online filter bubble of like minded people, initial contact, followed by persuasion by the contact person to isolate the potential recruit from  his/her family and friends. This culminates with the assignment of an ISIS task to such person. The takeaway from the paper, was the colossal scale of information and events put out by ISIS on the social media. It was pointed out that contrary to popular belief, ISIS publishes content under six broad themes: mercy, belonging, brutality, victimhood, war and utopia, least of which falls under the category of brutality which in fact garners the most attention worldwide. It was further elaborated that ISIS employs positive imagery in the form of nature and landscapes, and appeals to the civilian life within its borders. This strategy is that of prioritising quantity, quality, adaptability and differentiation while producing media.  This strategy of producing media that is precise, adaptable and effective, according to the author, must be emulated by Governments in their counter measures, although there is no universal counter narrative that is effective. This effort, he stressed cannot be exclusively state-driven.

JM Berger’s “Making Countering Violent Extremism Work” was also discussed. Here, a slightly different model of radicalisation has been identified with potential recruits going through 4 stages: the first being that of Curiosity where there is exposure to violent extremist ideology, the second stage is Consideration where the potential recruit evaluates the ideology, the third being Identification where the individual begins to self identify with extremist ideology, and the last being that of Self-Critique which is revisited periodically. According to Berger, law enforcement need only be involved in the third stage identified in this taxonomy, through situational awareness programs and investigations. This paper stated that counter-messaging policies need not mimic the ISIS pattern of slick messaging. A data-driven study had found that suspending and suppressing the reach of violent extremist accounts and individuals on online platform was effective in reducing the reach of these ideologies, though not universally so. It also found that generic counter strategies used in the US was more efficient than targeted strategies followed in Europe.

Lack of Co-ordination, Fragmentation between the States and Centre

Speaking of the Indian scenario in particular, another participant brought to light the lack of co-ordination and consensus between the State and Central Governments and law enforcement agencies with respect to countering violent extremism with leads to a breakage in the chain of action. Another participant added that the underestimation of the problem at the state level coupled with the theoretical and abstract nature of work done at the Centre is another pitfall. While the fragmentation of agencies was stated to be ineffective, bringing them under the purview of a single agency was also proposed as an ineffective measure. It was instead suggested that a neutral policy body, and not an implementing body, should coordinate the efforts of the multiple groups involved.

Unreliable Intelligence Infrastructure

It was pointed out that countries are presently underequipped due to the lack of intelligence infrastructure and technical expertise. This was primarily because agencies in India tend to use off-the shelf hardware and software produced by foreign companies, and such heavy dependence on unreliable parts will necessarily be detrimental to building reliable security infrastructure. Emphasis was laid on the significance of collaboration and open-source intelligence in countering online radicalisation.  An appeal was made to inculcate a higher IT proficiency, indigenous production of resources, funding, collaboration, integration of lower level agencies and more research to be produced in this regard.

Proactive Counter Narratives

The importance of proactive counter-narratives to extremist content was stressed on, with the possibility of generating inputs from government agencies and private bodies backing the government being discussed. Another solution identified was the creation and internal circulation of a clear strategy to counter the ISIS narrative and the public dissemination of research on online radicalization in the Indian context.

Policies of Social Media Platforms

The conversation moved towards understanding policies of social media. One participant shed light on a popular platform’s strategies against extremism, wherein it was pointed out that the site’s tolerance policy extends not only to directly extremist content but also content created by people who support violent extremism .The involvement of the platform with several countries and platforms in order to create anti-extremist messaging and its intention to expand these initiatives was in furtherance of its philosophy to prevent any celebration of violence. The participant further explained that research shows that anti-extremist content that made use of humour and a lighter tone was more effective than media which relied on gravitas.

Having identified the existing literature and current challenges, the roundtable concluded with suggestions for further areas of research:

  1. Understanding the use of encrypted messaging services like Whatsapp and Telegram for extremism, and an analysis of these platforms in the Indian context. A deeper understanding of these services is essential to gauge the dimensions of the problem and identify counter measures.
  2. A lexical analysis of Indian social media accounts to identify ISIS supporters and group them into meta-communities, similar to research done by the RAND Corporation
  3. Collation of ISIS media packages was also flagged off as an important measure in order to have a dossier to present to the government. This would help policymakers gain context around the issue, and also help them understand the scale of the problem.