Social media in 2015: Star Wars vs. The War on Terror

Until the end of 2015, the trailer for the new Star Wars movie had been seen about 700 million times. Both official and unofficial content flooded our news feeds. Disney partnered with Google and the search engine giant pushed the movie whenever possible. During the launch weekend, content related to Star Wars achieved 4.9 million tweets and 140 million interactions on Facebook. The most frequently appearing word was “spoiler”.

In November 2015, Twitter recorded almost 3 million tweets related to Star Wars (according to Izea) – more or less 100,000 per day. However, Centcom studies showed that 200,000 tweets and retweets supporting ISIS appear daily. This truly illustrates the scale of the problem we face in the War on Terror in Social media.

Social media is regarded the most important communication channel by various terrorist organisations.

Instead of a central “strategy”, organisations such as ISIS use a web of campaigns in different social media outlets. Content is created and spread by supporters of fundamentalist ideology all around the world – from Syrians to UK millennials. According to CNN, the average age of a Western-born ISIS fighter is 24 years. That’s why tools like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are so effective in spreading the ideology of global Jihad.

In contrast to the tapes once released by al-Qaeda through TV stations like Al Jazeera, nowadays terrorist organisations use social media to reach targeted groups of users with uncensored content, in real time. An example would be the beheading of an American journalist in August 2014. Graphic footage of the execution was published on YouTube while simultaneously  photos of the brutal murder were posted on Twitter. The content went viral – spread both by those supporting ISIS and frightened users denouncing these crimes. Subsequent executions were announced on Twitter first to accelerate the spread of the message.

Fighters of the Islamic State keep their Twitter profiles updated, sharing their experiences and spreading ISIS propaganda in order to encourage new members to join the ranks. When enough people report a user, Twitter blocks selected accounts and posts – but that doesn’t happen as quickly as it should. The reason for this is the fact that others duplicate and repost online content much faster than Twitter is able to deal with it. Additionally, private messages sent between users are encrypted, which makes them far more difficult to track. After the attacks in Paris, message-encrypting apps were found on bombers’ phones.

According to American institutions, ISIS produces 38 pieces of unique, high quality propaganda content every day.

Moreover, people linked to the terrorist organisations create  their own content as well. Since 2010, the British police have removed 110 000 social media posts that were considered to be extremist propaganda. The content doesn’t necessarily depict violence, since it also targets young doctors, specialists, etc., focusing on everyday life in the caliphate. And this is far more difficult to detect and remove.

It should be stressed that governments, technology providers and social media platforms lack a strategy to prevent the spread of extremism in social networks. This January, the White House initiated a series of meetings with companies in Silicon Valley in order to search for a solution. Let’s hope that 2016 will bring some much-needed change.