How to (not) deal with Jihadist propaganda on the Web

October 9th, 2014 - Jihadists may dream about the world as it was in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula, but making use of the internet never was a problem for them. They look at it as Godsend. The most democratic of mass media is also the most effective tool for spreading Jihadist propaganda. Is it possible to take this tool away from the Jihadists? 
The short answer, of course, is: No. 
Granted, it has become more difficult for the "Islamic State" in particular to maintain an organized online presence. In June the IS had a Twitter account for every single one of its "provinces", through which the organization spread communiqués, propaganda, pictures and videos. When Twitter shut down these accounts in September, the IS accounts migrated to the Russian Facebook-style Social Media website VK. Two weeks later VK shut these accounts down, too. Until today, the IS hasn't come up with a new, comparable system of accounts. But the material that the group wants to publish still finds it's way. Partly through some of the Jihadist web forums that have performed this function for years now. Partly through other, personal Twitter accounts that are less easy to connect to the IS. And these are just two ways that still work. There are more. They are a bit less obvious now, but if you know what you are looking for and if you are smart enough to change your searching parameters a little, you will find what you are looking for sooner or later. "It's even possible", says Aaron Zelin, a US-based terrorism researcher who also runs the blog for primary-source material, "that they (the Jihadists) might try and create their own platform in the future." 
The EU now seems to be looking into ways to at least minimize the spread of such propaganda. Yesterday, a dinner took place in Luxembourg, to which the parting EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström had not only invited the EU ministers of interior affairs but also representatives of some of the bigger internet corporations and providers like Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. I haven't heard about any results of the meeting yet. But a spokesperson for the Commission told me ahead of the dinner that the aim was to foster dialogue between law enforcement and intelligence agencies on the one side and private internet companies on the other side. The idea was to look at "tools and techniques to respond to terrorist online activities". 
I think it is important to understand that talking to the big internet companies may help to limit the spreading of Terrorist propaganda on mainstream platforms. But it will not help stop it altogether. The example mentioned above illustrates that: You may be able to get official IS accounts off Twitter; but already now many of the videos in question are being uploaded to opaque hosting websites that law enforcement has a very hard time identifying, let alone prosecuting. "It does make sense to talk to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter", says Nico Prucha from the Vienna University. "But the other side would have to be equally well connected in order to effectively limit the flow of propaganda." 
Unfortunately, it isn't. And more than that: It is biased, too, consciously or not. Twitter and YouTube have for years not done very much at all to stem Jihadist propaganda. It was the videos of the murders of US journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff that seem to have turned the tide. I tried it: It has become very difficult indeed to find the original full-length videos of their murders on the web. But it is still fairly easy to find the arguably more influential, very glossy and high profile recruiting and propaganda videos "Breaking of the Borders", "Upon the Prophetic Methodology" or "Flames of War". 
The EU, however, seems to also be looking at a second way: Countering the propaganda's content rather than it's publication. Or as Malmström's spokesperson put it to me: a "particular regard to the development of specific counter-narrative initiatives" was to be given at the dinner. 
I personally don't like the notion of "counter-narratives". I know the term has been around for a while. And I understand why it looks like a tempting idea: It seems easy to debunk and de-mistify a a lot of the claims that Jihadists make in their propaganda. But the problem is two-fold. For one, no Western state authorities have any credibility among those that are being targeted by IS propaganda; they would very likely just laugh at such attempts. And secondly: Who would formulate such counter-narratives, based on what authority? Is it, for example, conceivable that the EU lets the world know what a proper interpretation of Koranic verses is and what is not? 
In January 2011 I was at a CT conference in Riyadh, Saudi-Arabia. "Counter-Narratives" were being discussed there, too. In more than just one session. On the second day, I asked the interpreter in his cabin, who was translating between the English and the Arabic, how he rendered the term "counter-narrative" into Arabic. He said he used the word "tashih". Now that means "correction". That's a very different thing from what other people have in mind when they talk about counter-narratives. In Germany, for example, officials tell me that they would like to spread the message that democracy gives everyone the opportunity to play a part in the shaping of a country's policies. I doubt that the Saudis see that as a good counter-narrative. One person's counter-narrative can be very different from another person's counter-narrative. And we have no guarantee that any one of them will work. (In a way, but that's just an aside, the US State department's "Think again, turn away" campaign on Twitter is a kind of counter-narrative initiative. I don't think it is a huge success.) 
Also, I have another, more general problem with the term: I think it is too defensive. Why is "our" narrative the "counter-narrative"? Isn't "theirs"?
So what can we do? I believe we have to accept that Jihadists will be around online for as long as there is a free internet. And in fact, for many researchers and even law enforcement and intelligence agencies, this is an important keyhole through which they can better understand the Jihadists' thinking. 
By this, I am not saying that it is necessarily wrong to try and make it more difficult for Jihadists to gain access to large numbers of people, among them potential sympathizers. But I do say this: Online presence isn't the biggest problem. Even if it were possible to block the Jihadists' access to the internet entirely, they would still be around. In the real world. 
It's a tool. It is not where they live. 

NOTE: This blog post is an extended and somewhat different version of an article I published in this week's edition of DIE ZEIT. If you wish to quote from it, please contact me. 

1 comment: