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An Innovative Approach to Terror Propaganda Through Social Media

The struggle for public attention is one of the key challenges currently facing terrorist organizations who seek to promote support for their agendas and to influence public opinion and lure recruits. The rising importance of these issues leads professionals and researchers to study them using the vast experience accumulated in the field of commercial marketing.

The widespread use of social media by Islamist jihadi groups to spread propaganda and to recruit new members have proven the importance of needing to develop an effective a counter-narrative.

To that end, Dr. Anat Hochberg-Marom, an Israeli expert on global terrorism and marketing, has come up with an innovative approach and methodology to explain and analyze global terrorism from a marketing perspective. That is to say: How does a global terrorist organization like ISIS or Al Qaeda market itself on the Internet and in the social media domain? And what should we be doing to effectively counter it.

As part of her Ph.D research, Hochberg analyzed the political discourse published on the Internet and the international media in the first decade of the 21st Century, collecting thousands of messages publicized and distributed by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahri. She conducted a comprehensive, systematic, quantitative and qualitative content analysis of the statements made by Al Qaeda’s leaders using DVDs (video and audio) produced by Al Qaeda and released viainternational media channels and uploaded to the Internet between 2000 and 2008. In addition, she conducted three empirical case studies of areas considered significant for Al Qaeda and which are actual geopolitical issues in the international arena.

From the information she gleaned, she was able to thoroughly understand jihadists’ extreme ideology and mindset, thus learning what their marketing strategies and models were and how they tailor their specific messages to specific audiences.

“I believe we need an innovative approach to help the decision makers to confront the instigators of terrorism on the Internet specifically, and the social media, and to try to abolish the global jihad discourse,” Hochberg said.

A strategic consultant to government agencies and security institutions, Hochberg claimed that neither air strikes nor tanks and artillery will be able to halt the marketing of terrorism on the Internet, abolish global jihad discourse or decrease jihadists’ powerful influence in the social media domain.

However, the innovative approach that she developed to combat this problem is based on four academic degrees she holds in different research. Using her wide range of knowledge and wide multidisciplinary experience, Hochberg made a comparison between global business organizations such as Google and Facebook to global terrorist organizations and concluded that they use the same models and strategies as businesses to achieve political power and influence worldwide public opinion.

“It is vital to analyze their weaknesses and strengths, intentions and targets, and also to reach the leaders of the sub-groups in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, and, maybe in the near future, also in Europe and the US where these groups flourish,” Hochberg emphasized. “We urgently need to use new tactics and an innovative approach to confront them, to understand their political targets, their audiences and the specific messages that they transmit.”

Hochberg developed a unique analytical model expressly to analyze and explore Al Qaeda’s messages in order to understand its global vision, global jihad ideology, political goals and target audiences through its operative and online activities. Using this model significantly increases the information about the motives, intentions and capabilities of Al Qaeda and other jihadi terrorist organization, explain the link between the organization’s policies and operational tactics, and the actions they display at present and are planning for the future.

The model provides threat assessments and alerts of terrorism risks in a predictable manner so threats can be responded to rapidly and accurately. It can also help design an active policy for the West’s struggle for public awareness and facilitate the construction of “tailor-made” counterterrorism strategies to halt the mass recruitment by ISIS from more than 90 countries.

By combining knowledge, innovation and media technologies, Hochberg presents an effective, complete and easy to use solution designed to undermine the influence of global terrorist organizations in the social media space, and gain support in the struggle over public opinion.

Through a Minerva Initiative grant, Arizona State University is leading a project to study what types of information go viral online, and what types of actions or responses can halt the spread of viral information.

The Minerva Initiative is a research program sponsored by the Department of Defense (DoD) that provides grants to sustain university-based, social science studies on areas of strategic importance to US national security policy.

The grant allows the team – which includes who: researchers, students, academics from the US Military Academy and Britain’s University of Exeter — to study information cascades, which are trends marked by people ignoring their own knowledge or information in favor of suggestions from other people’s actions as they relate to the social-media posts of terrorist networks.

An information cascade occurs when a person observes the actions of others and then—despite possible contradictions in his/her own private information signals—engages in the same acts. It is about making information go viral, like how gossip moves in real life. People forward, retweet, comment, share, etc. It’s like what you’re seeing happening on social media right now with Cecil the Lion. Some people do act on the suggestions of others, but a good deal of it is just spreading the information and the technological infrastructure that allows that to happen — or not.

As the social media skills of terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda evolve, the Arizona State University project will be part of a team monitoring their advancements and trying to determine how their online actions can be negated.

Research team members include:

  • Dr. Hasan Davulcu, associate professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and director of ASU’s Cognitive Information Processing Systems Lab;
  • Luke Gerdes, a Minerva fellow in the sociology program of the United States Military Academy’s Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership and a prominent network scientist with specialties in dark networks and violent non-state actors;
  • Jonathan Githens-Mazer, associate professor in entho-politics at the University of Exeter in the UK. His research examines nationalism, radicalization, terrorism and counter-terrorism, and how to use technological innovation to buttress and improve qualitative research and ethnography;
  • Baoxin Li, associate professor ASU’s School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering and director of the Visual Representation and Processing Laboratory. He will lead research efforts related to visual media processing and retrieval, in particular face and logo detection and recognition from on-line images and videos; and
  • Mark Woodward, associate professor in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. He is a cultural anthropologist who has published extensively on political Islam, religion, violence and terrorism and the dynamics of radical and counter-radical movements. Woodward was the primary investigator for ASU’s previous Minerva effort.

The project team includes experts in the social sciences and computer engineering from ASU, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Exeter University in the United Kingdom. Many worked on the previous Minerva project.

They are employing computational and ethnographic methods to determine the degree of correspondence between virtual and on-the-ground communities. Specific areas to be studied are Southeast Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia), West Africa (Nigeria), Western Europe (United Kingdom) and the Middle East (Iraq and Syria).

In view of the vital importance of this topic and the similarity of methodologies being investigated by Hochberg and ASU, it would seem advantageous that such research and resources be pooled – it could be very valuable to successfully combating the digital jihad.

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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