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Taking Back Social Media: Producing a Counter Narrative to Terrorist Propaganda

It is no secret that social networking sites have become hotbeds for terrorist activity. Over the past several years, Islamist jihadi organizations in particular, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al Qaeda, 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.

Terrorist organizations and criminals, particularly gangs, have become extremely adept at exploiting social media to reach disenfranchised individuals who are receptive to radicalization. Individuals looking for purpose and importance are lured by all the propaganda that promises to make them feel like they matter—or could even become a hero.

According to Professor Michael Fagel, an expert on disaster preparedness and response, social media opens a window to the world in milliseconds. No longer bounded by large oceans, the information age has given terrorists the opportunity to make the entire world their audience.

“This is such an intense campaign to win the hearts and minds of those who are looking for something else to do,” Fagel told Homeland Security Today. “I liken it to the gangs of the 1960’s and 70’s. People would join those gangs because they felt disenfranchised and cut off. Today, in 2015, the recruiters are using and exploiting every tool at their disposal.”

Alarmingly, these organizations are using social media to call for attacks on the homeland. And it’s working. A United Nations (UN) report released earlier this year indicated 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.

These latest figures reveal a 71 percent increase in foreign recruits since the middle of last year—an increase that a UN panel of experts referred to as “higher than it has ever been historically”—raising concerns that these primarily jihadist fighters will return to their home countries to conduct attacks.

The advent of the Internet broke geographical boundaries, allowing the scope of the radical Islamist message to rapidly expand. Extremist propaganda began to seep into every corner of the globe and jihadist groups have increasingly used the Internet—particularly social media in recent years—to call for lone wolf attacks, according to a report obtained by Homeland Security Today from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).

“Thereis a new terrorism topic on the news every day,” Fagel said. “I have never been more concerned than I am today that these events arecoming closer and closer together. Not a day goes by without something heinous going on. Whatever happens in Country A impacts us in Country B. We are not immune. We are not protected by the ocean.”

Fagel noted that 2015 alone has seen a huge number of cases where individuals have been arrested for material support of ISIS and Al Qaeda. Social media transcends physical location, allowing criminal or terrorist recruiters access to a worldwide audience. Radicalized individuals are not coming from just one location in the US—they are coming from everywhere, and that’s of particular concern to US counterterrorism officials.

“Social networking is a powerful tool that has grown to a level that I don’t think anybody thought would be at this time,” Fagel said. “But it has been exploited by the people in these various groups. In Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, the gangs are using social media as well. It’s not just the Middle Eastern faction. Criminals are using these tools for recruitment.”

Just a few months ago, Homeland Security Today reported the House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing to examine the role of the Internet and social media in spreading propaganda, recruiting followers and directing jihadist-inspired attacks targeting the homeland.

In the wake of the Garland, Texas ISIS-inspired jihad attack, which was preceded by calls for an attack via Twitter, US officials are growing increasingly concerned that terrorism is going viral. In the weeks preceding the Garland, Texas attack, Elton Simpson, the alleged attacker, fired off a series of tweets pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and called for jihadi terror attacks on the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest using the hashtag #TexasAttack on Twitter.

“Extremists issued a ‘call to arms’ to attack an event, a radicalized follower clearly heeded that call, and he took steps to make sure his act of violence would spread and motivate more,” said committee chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas). “Social media networks have become an extension of the Islamist terror battlefields overseas, turning homegrown extremists into sleeper operatives and attackers.”

Although the concept of social media conjures up images of sharing vacation pictures, delicious dinners and “selfies,” terrorist organizations have exploited the tool to infiltrate the hearts of minds of individuals who are teetering on the edge. With a device in hand allowing instant access to information in seconds, disenfranchised individuals can easily be pushed into researching extremist propaganda as they search for a purpose or cause to give them meaning and importance.

“Social media is a tool,” Fagel said. “A device in the hands of someone who is teetering on the edge is a tool that could move that person to the next level.”

Fagel emphasized, however, that a tool itself is neither good nor bad—it’s how it is used. Social media in the hands of “good guys” can be very powerful and can even assist in saving lives. During natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) uses social media effectively to aid with disaster relief. In addition, the National Weather Service uses social media to warn of impending storms.

Social media and other emerging technologies have allowed FEMA to reach more people more quickly during disasters—when it is imperative that they receive accurate and timely information—enabling a whole of community approach to disaster preparedness.

Robert J. Fenton, acting Deputy Associate Administrator for FEMA’sOffice of Response and Recovery, testified before a hearing last year that, “Rather than trying to convince the public to adjust to the way we at FEMA have traditionally communicated, we have adapted to the way the public communicates, leveraging the tools they use on a daily basis.”

“We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Fagel said. “We need to be as good at information as the bad guys are at propaganda to win hearts and minds of people who may be looking for a solution, cause, whatever. If they could get educated in the right things, I think we could go a long way towards making ourselves better and safer.”

Fagel believes education is critical in developing a counter narrative to the radical propaganda spread by terrorist and criminal actors online. Programs like the Department of Homeland Security’s, “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign are very valuable in assisting with criminal and counterterrorism efforts. However, these types of programs are not enough to halt propaganda.

In addition, parents need to be parents. Fagel noted children are given smartphones, Ipads, personal computers and other devices before they even hit second grade. While a condemnation of social media itself is not a good thing, parents must teach their children that these are powerful tools connecting us to the outside world in just moments. Social media can be used effectively as a tool to share right information, or it can be used to cause harm.

“Where do we go from here?” asked Fagel. “We need people to understand the good and the bad and know the difference between them, to know what is right and to know what is wrong. Education and training, as well parents being parents—and not abdicating their responsibilities to schools—is one way we can do this.”

Editor’s note: Professor Michael Fagel is an Adjunct Professor of Public Administration, Illinois Institute of Technology; Instructor, Safety Security Emergency Management, Eastern Kentucky University; Instructor, Northern Illinois University; Instructor, Aurora University; Instructor/SME at National Center for Security & Preparedness (NCSP) at the University at Albany; and Senior Lead Instructor, National Center for Bio Medical Research & Training (NCBRT) at Louisiana State University. He also serves as a Homeland Security Subject Matter Expert and Instructor at Argonne National Laboratory.

His public safety career included law enforcement, fire rescue, emergency medical services and emergency management. He has served the Department of Defense in various capacities, including building a FEMA organization from ground up in the Middle East.

He also served as a reservist for FEMA/DHS responding to such events as the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, World Trade Center Attacks in 2001 and Hurricane Sandy in New York.

He has published 5 textbooks on emergency planning. His latest Book, Crisis Management, earned text book of the year award from ASIS.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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