Hours after news erupted of the deadly wave of terrorist attacks across Paris, buildings and monuments in major cities around the globe — from the Sydney Opera House in Australia to One World Trade Center to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai — were illuminated with the blue, white and red of France’s tricolor.
All over the world, governments and private citizens flew the colors of the French flag in support of a nation in mourning over the tragic loss of more than 130 innocent people murdered at the hands of radical Islamic jihadists.
At the same time, a similarly awe-inspiring show of solidarity broke out on social media. Soon after the attacks, the #prayforparis hashtag began trending on Twitter; Facebook began offering a French flag filter for profile pictures; and an image of an Eiffel Tower turned into a peace symbol began circulating on Instagram.
Skeptics dismissed social media’s reaction to the tragedy as self-indulgence disguised as empathy. Some argued the click of the “like” button cannot undo the tragic events that unfolded in Paris, presenting an opportunity for narcissism rather than compassion. Moreover, many raised eyebrows over the fact that the twin suicide bombing in a Beirut suburb a day earlier did not receive the same public outpouring of support.
Regardless, whether a display of narcissism or of true empathy, one thing is undeniable: the filters, hashtags and memes expressing solidarity with France may have turned the tables in the war of ideas being played out in the battle space of social media.
Professor Michael Fagel, a public safety and emergency management expert with more than three decades of experience in the field, told Homeland Security Today terrorist organizations, particularly ISIS, have a tremendously effective social media capability. Countering their social media efforts may be an uphill battle, especially if the United States does not acknowledge that the war on terror needs to be fought on many fronts — the Internet included.
“Our nation has not embraced the fact that this is a battle, and social media is a battle space,” Fagel explained. “Battles have to be fought on many fronts to be successful.”
In recent years, social networking sites have become hotbeds for terrorist activity. Islamist jihadi organizations have demonstrated mastery of social media as a mechanism for spreading propaganda, recruiting followers and luring thousands of foreign fighters abroad to receive jihadi training in Iraq and Syria.
Homeland Security Today recently reported ISIS followers created Twitter hashtags prior to the recent Paris attacks praising “Paris [is] in flames” and declaring “ISIS is attacking Paris.”
Another ISIS propagandist tweeted, “O crusaders we are coming to you with bombs and rifles … Wait for us.”
“The infidels were happy in the liberating of Sinjar at the morning, and at night they slap themselves for Paris,” said another tweet in Arabic.
Earlier this year, the House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing which examined the use of the Internet and social media to instigate jihadist-inspired attacks targeting the homeland. Committee chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) stated, “Social media networks have become an extension of the Islamist terror battlefields overseas, turning homegrown extremists into sleeper operatives and attackers.”
“The proliferation of jihadist propaganda online has established a new front in our battle against Islamist extremists," McCaul said, noting, "We are no longer hunting terrorists living in caves who only communicate through couriers. We are facing an enemy whose messages and calls to violence are posted and promoted in real-time.”
Terrorist organizations and criminals, particularly gangs, have become extremely adept at exploiting social media to reach disenfranchised individuals who are receptive to radicalization. Homeland Security Today reported in August 2014 social media-influenced Islamist jihadism has already taken place on US soil, some successfully, and noted many others were thwarted.
Fagel noted that the advent of the Internet has allowed terrorist propaganda to reach every corner of the globe, transcending the physical geographical boundaries that once restricted its spread. He noted prisons in particular have become a veritable hotbed for jihad, citing the example of the radicalization of Nidal Hassan, a disgruntled US Army officer who killed 13 in a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, and Abdulhakim Mujahid, a former convict who opened fire on a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one soldier and critically wounding another.
A United Nations report issued earlier this year stated the number of foreign fighters leaving their home nations to join extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and other nations has hit record levels, with estimates of over 25,000 foreign fighters coming from nearly 100 countries. US intelligence officials have estimated more than 150 US citizens havetraveled or attempted to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State.
“The narrative that is being delivered is creating unparalleled mischief and mayhem due to the blind following of their message,” Fagel said. “The message has to be countered, and countered with plausible facts and actions, and not rhetoric. The American public and, for that matter, the entire Western world must band together to counter this violence and aggression.”
The massive display of solidarity with France on social media has ignited a discussion on the power of social media for spreading information — or in some cases, misinformation. Although social media provided people a tool to share breaking news and communicate after the attacks, it also allowed misleading information to spread at rapid clip. More than 10.7 million tweets were posted about Paris between Friday and Saturday, according to Topsy.
The ease at which misinformation is spread raises the important question of how social media can be effectively harnessed to counter terrorism. In the wake of a tragedy, many are left wondering, what can we do? The mass display of empathy for France on social media points to that basic human desire “to do something” in the aftermath of a tragic event.
Participating in the creation of a counter narrative to the one espoused by terrorist organizations may be one of the most powerful ways to do that — but it is no easy task.
Fagel emphasized that a prerequisite to producing a counter narrative to terrorist propaganda is defining the enemy for what it is; in this case, radical Islamist extremists, since an enemy who is undefined cannot be defeated. To produce a counter narrative, the narrative, as well as the author behind that narrative, must be identified.
“Sadly, in today’s politically correct society, there are many people who wish to continue to hide behind ‘political correctness’ and not call the enemy what it really is,” Fagel said. “This is an enemy of society as we know it. The slaughter of innocents is reprehensible and abhorrent. And for peoples to continually slaughter innocents in the name of their cause creates a social dilemma of epic proportions.”
Fagel said so far, the US has failed to “call it like it is.” For example, shortlyafter jihadists stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last year, the White House held a summit on countering violent extremism (CVE) and came under scrutiny for omitting any mention of “Islamic terror,” while US and Western government officials refused to call the attacks in Paris “Islamic.”
In response to the White House’s summit, senior Intelligence Community and counterterrorism officials raised concerns that use of the term “CVE” has obscured the discussion, making it difficult to fight the enemy in any meaningful way.
“You cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists,” said former Defense Intelligence Agency Director and recently retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn while speaking to a group of Special Forces members earlier this year. He asserted the Obama administration is unwilling to identify an enemy that is “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life.”
“It does us no good to refuse to admit what is plainly true," Flynn said. “So long as we lack the intellectual clarity to accurately define our enemies we will also not have the necessary capacity to defeat them. You cannot defeat an enemy you do not admit exists.”
Will #prayforparis and the French flag filters fade into our timelines as quickly as they came? Or will they mark the beginning of real efforts to counter the propaganda efforts of terrorist organizations like ISIS?
Only time will tell.
But until we begin to engage ISIS in the moral and ideological battle space, we are in a losing fight, authorities say.
“The enemy is pervasive, the enemy is flexible, and the enemy is among us,” Fagel warned. “Can the person next-door to us become radicalized?The answer is absolutely ‘yes.’ And the next attack could be anywhere.”