The Islamic State, an al-Qaida offshoot that has declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and other radical Islamic groups are widely using social media websites to promote their message, raise funds, and recruit members.
MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) has been leading a campaign exposing how jihadi groups designated in the West as terrorist organizations continue to be active on social media websites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
This effort led to Twitter’s closure of multiple Izzadin Kassam accounts, but the group continues to be active on the social network, tweeting in four accounts and in several languages, as well as in other Hamas accounts.
“All the major US social media companies have been irresponsible when it comes to allowing terrorist groups to freely and openly use their platforms,” Steven Stalinsky, MEMRI’s executive director, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. “It has gotten to the point where it is a national security issue for the US and the West – putting lives at risk.”
Stalinsky pointed to an op-ed in The Washington Post this week by MSNBC host Ronan Farrow, which stated that social media companies “have a moral obligation to do more. And US law should not create a legal barrier for them to act when lives are on the line.”
As early as December 2010, Stalinsky met with representatives from Google, including their First Amendment attorney, head of public relations and policy, senior policy manager, and senior policy counsel, to discuss this issue and to make recommendations for them to deal with the infestation of YouTube with jihadist material.
“They were not interested in really tackling this issue,” said Stalinsky.
Though, he said, following the meeting, “YouTube added the flagging mechanism to enable its users to mark those videos that could be viewed as inciting terror.”
MEMRI tested this by flagging 100 Osama bin Laden videos and found that only 42 were removed.
“Yet to this day, every major jihadi video release is posted on YouTube,” lamented Stalinsky.
Regarding Twitter, Stalinsky said that they began shutting down accounts in January 2014 with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab.
“However, al-Shabaab has a new account that continues to tweet to this day,” Stalinsky said. “The social media website did recently begin to close accounts related to Islamic State, yet the terror group also simply creates new accounts that are then ignored.”
The fact that groups like al-Qaida’s Nusra Front in Syria remains active shows the lack of a strong policy, asserted Stalinsky.
Facebook is known to shut down many US-designated terrorist organization accounts.
“For example, Hezbollah’s media arm, Al-Manar, had its account closed, but they also recreated another account and nothing is done,” he added. “Each company has algorithms and other technologies that could deal with this problem,” he said, pointing out that they could use the same methods they use to prevent child pornography and copyrighted material from being posted.
In a report released last week, MEMRI noted how Hamas’s military wing, Izzadin Kassam, returned to Twitter after its account was shut down in January.
“The current Al-Qassam Brigades Twitter account, @qassamfeed, has, as of this writing, posted 1,151 tweets.
It has been used for issuing threats against Israel; listing its attacks on Israel; outreach to worldwide media outlets and followers; disseminating the group’s propaganda; and reporting on Israeli military activities,” said the report.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Shillman- Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum, told the Post radical Islamic groups such as the Islamic State deem social media as “important to have access to, in order to broadcast their activities and attract potential recruits from around the world.”
Tamimi, who closely follows Islamist groups on social media, says the Islamic State particularly advertises its foreign fighter “martyrdoms” to emphasize the global nature of its struggle.
On the other hand, the Nusra Front “emphasizes military operations and the idea of proto-state building in the various provinces where it is active.”
Asked how these terrorist groups would react if social networking companies would strictly ban their activity, Tamimi responded that some have already begun cracking down on them.
He points out, for example, that Islamic State provincial feeds in the Iraqi provinces of Nineveh and Salahaddin have been repeatedly taken off Twitter. However, the terrorist organization has been very quick to set up new accounts.
“Granted they may not attain as many followers as before, but it continues a perpetual cycle,” he explained.
Asked which Islamist group he thinks is the most effective at using social media, Tamimi assessed that Islamic State is the best.
“They know how to inflate their presence by distorting hash-tag trends, such that they even hijacked a Baathist Naqshbandi Army slogan – ‘Qadimun ya Baghdad’ (‘Coming oh Baghdad’) – as their own,” he said.
The Naqshbandi Army is an Iraqi group led by allies of Saddam Hussein, which allied with Islamic State in overrunning large parts of Iraq.
“The Islamic State are also better skilled at making social media appealing, as is apparent from their use of high quality photographs and video footage,” he added.
Asked if social media companies should be more aggressive in shutting down the accounts of such groups, Tamimi responded that it could help reduce followers in the long run, but that there are other ways the groups could get around it.
Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were contacted for this report, but did not respond by press time.