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Is social media enabling terrorists and what can we do about it?

No one will argue that the technology landscape over the last two decades has caused huge shifts in the way that we all work and play. I mean, it’s hard to think of a world without the Internet or smartphones or social media.  It has impacted every facet of our lives, from our businesses to our homes and, for the most part, technology has improved our lives and made us safer and happier.  That’s not to say that technological advances have all been for the good, though, especially when it comes to terrorism and the way terrorists operate around the world.

The thing about technology is that it is neutral in that there is no good or bad technology, but that doesn’t mean that technology can’t be used for bad purposes and that’s where terrorists circles come into play. If you’ll recall back when our friend Eric Snowden revealed the extent of the online tracking the NSA was doing, one of the more controversial revelations – at least from the government perspective – was how good the NSA had become at tracking terrorist over the Internet and social media.  In fact, intelligence sources admitted shortly after that that many of the terrorists they had been tracking had effectively “gone to ground,” that is, disappeared from the Internet once they realized how exposed they were. Snowden dealt a big blow to counterintelligence efforts on the part of the NSA and all the western intelligence agencies, including those in Europe and Israel.

You know, when we had the upper against terrorist and could monitor their activities online, it was an advantage that allowed us to prevent attacks and proactively go after the bad guys before they had a chance to execute on their deadly plans.  We had the technological advantage, especially in the Middle East because Islamic terrorists rejected all things Western, including technology and the Internet.  Over the last few years, however, that advantage has eroded and Islamic terrorist groups have embraced technology and especially social media as a way to extend the fight and as a recruiting tool.  The Islamic terrorist group ISIS, for example, has been extremely effective in using social media to recruit new members from around the world, including the United States, where dozens of disaffected young people have taken up their cause and traveled to Syria to join ISIS in their efforts to establish an Islamic Caliphate.  As a quick somewhat ironic and darkly funny twist, the ISIS leadership has also complained on social media that many of the young Americans who have asked to join them are not physically fit enough to take up the fight and have been rejected.

Terrorists recognize that social media is a powerful tool not just for recruiting but also to intimidate their opponents by posting horrific videos of executions and beheadings as well as promote their world view and justify their actions by holding one sided conversations online. It’s only recently that Western governments have decided to fight back by creating their own social media content to combat the messages ISIS is sending by teaming up with moderate Islamic factions and clerics to argue that ISIS is perverting Islam.  The U.S. State Department claims that their recent efforts are working as some people who were thinking of joining ISIS have decided against it.

Western governments have been quietly arguing that they need the help of the technology companies themselves to help combat terrorists.  Recently, though, some officials have gone public.  The head of Britain’s GCHQ, which is like their NSA, has criticized several tech companies in the media for not doing more to prevent their platforms from being used by terrorists. He accused them of being in denial about the problem of Islamic Jihadists using the web to promote themselves, intimidate the public and radicalize new recruits. He called on them to help in the fight against terrorism but the companies, many of whom have been cooperating with authorities privately, say that doing what the British government is requesting is a slippery slope to selective censorship and it would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

At the end of the day, that is the challenge that we face: balancing the openness of the web with the security needs of the public.  It’s a struggle that won’t be resolved any time soon.

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