Testing tools to counter online ISIS recruitment

ISIS computer recruitment
Copyright: Jan Johannessen / Panos

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Online innovation hubs, digital labs, virtual ideas factories — terms such as these crop up time and again in SciDev.Net stories, usually to be found in positive tales of social enterprise, digital development and urban regeneration.

But earlier this week I heard about a very different kind of digital innovation — one focused on disruption rather than production, and set up to fight the information battles being waged by violent extremists across the world’s media and digital networks.

Digital Jihad: How Online Networks are Changing Extremism, a meeting run by think-tank Chatham House in London, United Kingdom, on 2 March, debated the changing face of extremism through the use of digital innovations by the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS). 

Since proclaiming its worldwide caliphate in June 2014, ISIS has stunned the world with its rapid and brutal occupation of land across Syria and northern Iraq. But the group also rose to fame through its slick media operations — from graphic but professional YouTube videos, GoPro films and social media campaigns to the technical wizardry of its digital encryption and anonymised networks.

ISIS prepares its media wars in the shadows — in the corners and “caves” of the dark web, as the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile of Berriew put it on Monday. But it fights them in plain sight, engaging in what research fellow Shiraz Maher of King’s College London, United Kingdom, called the “most socially mediated war in history”.

But Rachel Briggs, a senior fellow at London-based think-tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), made a striking point that tends to be overlooked in debates about the group. Extremists have always used information tools “as cleverly as they possibly can in pursuit of their aims”.

From printing presses and pamphlets, media has long been used innovatively as a tool of revolution and war, Briggs stressed. Even Osama Bin Laden called on his followers to fight al-Qaida’s battles in the media as well as the physical battle space, and engineered his 2001 attack on the World Trade Center to be perfect television material.

Now ISIS is pouring money, resources and technical expertise into multipronged campaigns, and delivering a “masterclass in how to use the internet and social media” that leaves its opponents playing an endless game of catch-up, she said. 

There’s something depressingly familiar about ISIS’s message to potential followers, while at the same time their tools grow ever more sophisticated and the stakes higher. 

Imogen Mathers

To push back against this threat, governments need to “put their money where their mouth is” and invest more in counter-narrative strategies, Briggs said. This would mean taking risks, embracing failure, and testing out different strategies and types of content. Far more input and cooperation from the “genius engineers” at technology companies would also be needed, she added.  

And then there’s the dark web. In the face of a clampdown on conventional web networks, Carlile said, the “radical threat” is increasingly heading to peer-to-peer networking space protected by a layer of encryption. He added that tackling this would require a surge in international cooperation to deal with the dark web and other forms of radicalisation.

As is so often the case with debates on information wars, the discussion left me feeling both intrigued by the complexity of the conflict and techniques described, and alarmed by the destruction unfolding through the world’s routers and circuit boards into the physical world. There’s something depressingly familiar about ISIS’s message to potential followers, while at the same time their tools grow ever more sophisticated and the stakes higher.