They are unlikely bedfellows: Sunni Islamists declaring a caliphate across the Middle East, ranchers attacking a federal wildlife refuge headquarters while refusing to pay taxes, and neo-Nazis peddling white nationalism and hatred of Jews to Twitter. But they have more in common than any of them would like to admit. It’s not just that they’re all extremists, advocating ideas and behaviors that challenge standard order and condone violence. Importantly, all of these groups and others have used social media to spread their brand across the globe and into our communities.
This problem is not going to go away on its own. These groups have proven themselves to be adaptive and competent at making effective use of every tool available to them. Fifty years ago terrorist cells used leaflets and secret meetings to spread their message. In the 1990s, Osama Bin Laden pioneered the use of video and even began to utilize Western media. The explosion of extremism online is a predictable and inevitable next step in the development of terrorist tactics.
Defenders of the liberal order must develop a toolkit to counter these extremist ideas and emphatically reject the use of violence as a means of political change.
The Dramatic Rise of Online Extremism
In 2005, only 12% of Islamic extremists in the U.S. were radicalized online. That number jumped to 90% in 2015. This figure only slightly trails social media use in general, which exploded in 2008 and keeps rising every year. And it’s not just ISIS-inspired terrorists and foreign fighters. Extremism of all kinds has increased alongside the increase in social media usage. Extremists are adept at using new communications methods to spread their ideologies, and they have been quick to adopt social media and other digital communications. This online radicalization has real-world effects. Deadly attacks by extremists of various ideologies have increased almost in lockstep with this increase in social media presence and radicalization.
Governments lack the agility needed to respond in real-time to these growing online threats. Attempts at coordinated responses have often found themselves a year or more behind, which finds governments responding to a problem that has evolved and changed so much in the interim that the counter-message no longer makes sense.
Critically, radicalization often happens much more quickly than it used to. Today’s “flash to bang” ratio – the time between ideological radicalization and mobilization – is faster than what law enforcement is used to dealing with. Digital communication simply allows a recruiter to find a suitable target, begin a conversation, and bring him/her into the network much more quickly than was possible even ten years ago.
Nazis on Twitter
We know the damage they’ve done in the real world: a neo-Nazi attack on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, the attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Dylann Roof’s shooting at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina. Neo-Nazis and white nationalists, along with antigovernment “patriot” groups and sovereign citizens, have seen a rapid rise since 2008.
This rise is more dramatic online. According to a recent report from the Washington Institute, “between 2012 and 2016, Nazi usage on Twitter grew 600 percent.” Furthermore, “followers of major white nationalist Twitter accounts increased from 3,542 in 2012 to 25,406 in 2016.” Despite the current Islamophobic rhetoric, many law enforcement agencies around the country are more concerned about violence carried out by antigovernment extremists than by individuals inspired by ISIS. Nevertheless, foreign terrorism remains a major and dynamic threat.
ISIS: Digital Marketing for the Caliphate
As ISIS loses ground in Syria and Iraq, it must reinvent itself; they call it ISIS 2.0. While the terrorist organization has been active on social media from the very beginning, as they lose territory in the physical world, they work even harder to expand their influence online. Some foreign fighters may return home and attempt to carry out attacks there. More critically, though, people who would have become radicalized and traveled abroad three years ago are now radicalized with the objective of staying at home, increasing the risk of attacks in the West.
ISIS recruiters actively seek out vulnerable individuals with messages and recruitment strategies designed to win them over. A few years ago, recruitment ended with a call to travel to Syria to become a foreign fighter defending the caliphate. Today, ISIS asks its recruits to carry out attacks at home. They are putting the spin on their defeats by announcing a “global offensive” that will be much more damaging than anything they’ve done so far. It is certainly a bit of bluffing, but it’s not all empty threats: the FBI recently reported that they have more than nine hundred active counterterrorism investigations related to ISIS alone across all fifty states.
ISIS is adaptive, too. They hijacked the Black Lives Matter movement, using #BLM for their posts and claiming that life in the caliphate would be better than life in America for many young black Americans. President Trump’s rhetoric only makes their job easier: disaffected Muslims in America now have a real reason to feel that their country is turning against them.
Notably, many people are not radicalized directly by ISIS but rather “inspired” by jihadist “influencers” who disseminate ISIS and other groups’ material without directly contacting individuals. Lone actors have always been a threat, but in the past the threat was relatively minor. Now, through social media, many more people are exposed to the kind of inspiration that can lead to lone wolf attacks. This further increases the risk that online radicalization will only grow in the coming years.
In fact, lone actors have increased across a broad range of ideologies. Sovereign citizens, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and left-wing extremists are all expanding their operations. We must prepare for a coming wave of terrorists radicalized online and planning to strike right where they are.
Challenging Dominance: Taking Back Social Media
This, then, is the problem; so what do we do about it? How do we challenge the narrative and take back momentum?
The Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) community is currently focused on building strong and resilient communities. This is certainly important and must be a focus of our efforts to push back against extremism. But it’s not enough. The problem lives online and we have to challenge it online, as well as in communities.
Twitter and YouTube take down accounts related to extremist groups, but this alone won’t do much good: these groups make new accounts much faster than we can take them down. (Not to mention concerns surrounding free speech and where the line between free speech and hate speech is appropriately drawn). We cannot cede the online space to these groups. A truly effective counter-extremism strategy will include actively promoting an alternative narrative.
Lately, the government and some groups have backed away from messaging, in part because success is hard to measure and because the State Department has received criticism of its attempts. In many ways, the government isn’t a good messenger: they lack authenticity and credibility, especially with the people most likely to be on the verge of radicalization.
However, that doesn’t mean we should give up on the idea of messaging. If done correctly, by tapping into the root causes that drive radicalization, messaging can divert people who may have been considering, or on the edge of, turning to violence and extremism.
This approach will require empathy for the individuals who may get drawn in, as well as an understanding of the ways extremism becomes appealing. Messaging must understand the deep emotional needs of individuals who, in searching for personal significance, commit themselves to fervent belief in something bigger than themselves. Only by offering an equally emotionally compelling alternative does an alternative message have any chance of success.
Simultaneously, we must develop the agility to respond to ever-changing facts on the ground. After the attack in London, ISIS dramatically increased recruitment efforts, using that tragedy to their own benefit. Communities threatened by ISIS must be able to respond in real time with alternative appeals to those on the brink of radicalization. As government is not well placed to make these kind of quick pivots and re-alignments--non-profits and the private sector must step in and take up this cause.
Social media and digital communications have changed the world dramatically and extremist groups have taken advantage of these new mediums to amplify their reach and increase recruitment. A robust strategy to counter extremism must include an online presence that competes directly for hearts and minds. We can’t wait for another London, another San Bernadino, another Orlando. We must act now.
This post was originally published in the Journal of International Affairs.