Long before ISIS, transnational terrorist groups had discovered the use of the Internet and social networks. Terrorists went online for recruiting, fund-raising, mission-planning, intelligence gathering, and propagandizing about their cause. Yet, the efforts of ISIS have garnered unusual attention. In part, that is because their activities are both vigorous and especially overt. More importantly, however, they reflect what makes social networks particularly powerful and influential—the synergy that occurs when online action is linked to a robust human web.
The role of online networks in terrorist activities is poorly understood. There is no question, of course, that social networks are powerful. For starters, they can scale very quickly. The number of people that one person can reach can be pretty impressive. Additionally, it doesn’t require a hit single to establish a formidable presence online. Social networkers with very little reach can also have an outsized impact. Their contributions may go “viral,” picked up, and retransmitted by others.
Most social networks conform to what is called the “power curve,” with a few contributors dominating the preponderance of activity on the network. This “high ground” of influence is called “broadcast mode.” Those who can get a dominant influencer to convey their message have a great competitive advantage when it comes to driving the conversation on the network.
There is also, however, a second high ground on social networks. That space is on the other far end of the curve called “conversation mode.” Something really interesting happens when networks scale down to very small groups. The level of participation among the members is more balanced. This allows for more high-quality conversations.
ISIS works both ends of the curve. They want execution videos to go viral and grab the world’s attention. On the other hand, extremists also seek to lure individuals into small group conversation where they can attract new recruits or radicalize the other discussants. “Some of these conversations occur in publicly accessed social networking sites,” noted Michael Steinbach, the FBI’s Assistant Director for the Counterterrorism Division, before a Congressional Committee.
But skillful use of social networks does not confer a distinct competitive advantage. The Internet grants no inherent advantages to any state or non-state group. Counterterrorist operations can go online and conduct the same activities on the same systems. Or, they can use the terrorists’ online presence against them—by gathering intelligence about the group, disrupting their online activities, or just trolling them to annoy and distract.
Further, it is important to recognize that the online terrorist operations are not the crux of the problem. What makes terrorist social networks dangerous is when they connect with a physical community—people on the ground who are willing not just to tweet, “like,” or post terrorist material on Instagram, but to operationalize ideas, putting extremist calls into action.
In assessing terrorists’ use of social media, one must also consider non-network platforms. Steinbach notes that, while many communications rely on apps like Facebook and Twitter, “others take place via private messaging platforms.”
Some of these activities occur on what is often called the “dark web,” websites that may be publicly visible, but mask the IP addresses of the servers hosting them. These sites can’t be found using conventional search engines. It is difficult to ascertain who is maintaining the sites. Moreover, terrorist groups are increasingly using encryption methods to protect their communications. Paying attention to such sub rosa online communications is every bit as important as monitoring social networks.
Still, both public and dark communications are more symptoms of the challenge than the challenge itself. Rather than chase shadows on the Web, the main thrust of an effective counterterrorism strategy ought to be directed toward crushing the bad guys.
This approach to winning online probably goes for other malicious online competitors as well. Rather than get into a symmetrical struggle of “our” electrons versus “theirs”—an effort that usually involves sweeping censorship, massive data mining, and continuous online propaganda—better to look at asymmetrical responses that can cripple a competitor’s human web. When the physical threat is diminished, the online threat is more manageable.
-Dr. James Jay Carafano, a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges, is The Heritage Foundation’s Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies. A 25-year Army veteran and West Point graduate, Carafano has written several books. His most recent, "Surviving the End" addresses emergency preparedness.
This piece originally appeared in The Cipher Brief