A propaganda of fear

Recent terrorist attacks that have shocked the world are fought as much on social media as on the streets



Recent terrorist attacks around the world – including Paris, Beirut and Metrojet Flight 9268 –  were marked not only by their cruelty but also the use of social media before, during and after the attacks. But can social media also be used to fight back against the terrorists?

Social media is not just an important part of violent extremism and terrorism: it is central to it. It would be difficult these days to find a terrorist who has not had significant exposure to extremism on social media. While there are many other forms of terrorist ideology, this article will focus on the most prominent threat of Islamic-based extremism.

From the humble beginnings of a few web pages to a sophisticated global social media strategy, the online growth of Islamic extremism and terrorism has been exponential. Not only has the volume of material significantly increased, but so has the level of sophistication. Multiple Facebook pages, profiles and groups, Twitter real-time updates by the Islamic State in Syria, high-quality propaganda videos posted on YouTube and even glossy online magazines are all continually being developed, posted and updated. It all appears like an unstoppable tide of unsettling influence that is set to plague the world for years to come.

Before we look at ways of framing the use of social media by terrorists, it is important to first understand their message. Islamic extremism can be divided into three broad narratives. First is the narrative of grievance that states that the west has persecuted and terrorised Muslim nations as well as exploited them. What is most striking from studying these grievances online is the fact they are all presented as cumulative and interrelated as a giant threat to Islam itself.There is no doubt that the global picture looks grim in regard to Islamic extremism and terrorism especially with the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. However, it is important to take a step back and consider the nature of this problem – or perhaps more correctly, phenomenon. By understanding the message and mechanisms at work, better strategies can be devised to help combat, contain and reduce the size of the threat However, any claims about eliminating such a threat are short-sighted, simplistic and most importantly, inaccurate.

"Social media is not just an important part of violent extremism and terrorism: it is central to it.”

Local threats are integrated into this global threat and presented as part of a historical narrative of persecution. Second, the need for action is promoted through the narrative of jihad, which is presented as violent action designed to rid Islam of oppression as well as send a message to its oppressors. The third narrative which is intertwined with jihad is that of martyrdom. All who undertake jihad must be prepared to be martyred for their cause. More than this, martyrdom is something that should be actively sought and brings many rewards.

Regardless of the perspective taken, getting the message out is a form of psychological warfare with the aim to "win hearts and minds," a phrase that the west has itself used as way of defining its strategy. Understanding Islamic terrorism and our response to it as a form of psychological warfare is very important given that it acknowledges the active and relentless strategy of utilising social media by extremists to reach a global audience

Hiding in privacy

Launched in 2013, Telegram is an app that can be set up on almost any device and allows messages to be sent to users, with a strong focus on privacy. IS utilises the service of Telegram channels because it is more difficult for security agencies to monitor and disrupt than other platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. An important tool that agencies use to tackle violent extremism is that of counter-narratives. The aim here is address and challenge propaganda and misinformation being disseminated by IS to potential recruits or IS sympathisers. This is used as a form of disruption to the flow of information and recruitment process. But with Telegrams – where information moves in one direction – it makes it harder to counter jihad propaganda and lies.

Telegrams is used by IS not just to post propaganda but to spread training manuals, advice on how to obtain and import weapons, how to make bombs and how to perform single jihadi attacks on individuals with household equipment. It has posts on launching attacks at soft targets and the activation of lone-wolf style attacks, or to give the green light for small terrorists pockets or cells within the community to conduct their onslaught. Inciting acts of violence is a key element of IS’s radical religious ideology. It mandates that its people are following the “true” path of Allah and are helping to bring to pass a great apocalyptic battle between coalition forces and “Rome”, which to them is the will of Allah

Techniques of terror

Social media is a powerful tool to convey these messages for several reasons. First is the strong integration with other forms of media including text, pdf files, graphics and video links. Second is the ability to connect with likeminded individuals and find those with similar beliefs quickly and easily. Third is the interactive nature of social media that allows people to interact with each other in real time on a regular basis. Finally and perhaps most significantly is the often addictive nature of social media that lends itself to regular engagement often in large blocks of time.

Social media is also critical to the way the message is propagated. Two key ways in which these messages are propagated are propaganda techniques and the use of institutional power. Propaganda techniques have traditionally been framed in terms of a nation or large organisation. However, for this article propaganda is simply a technique used to propagate a message. Several frameworks for propaganda techniques exist, with many overlapping. Perhaps the most pertinent is the use of white propaganda which is similar to card stacking: without having to make up overt lies, it focuses on one side of the argument. Most significant is that of grievance narratives: media stories of children being killed in conflict zones as well as abuses of power by military forces are quickly picked up, linked to on social media and circulated widely, thus promoting the victimisation of one group of people.

Another key propaganda strategy used is to appeal to authority – for example, Allah – and those who are recognised as having authority to speak, such as radical clerics and those who have been martyred. Becoming a martyr gives a person’s words a platform after they have died and can be accompanied by images and or video files. While other techniques such as stereotyping and making generalities are common, the fundamental strategy underlying all others is that of repetition. Key meta narratives of grievance, jihad and martyrdom are constantly repeated by a vast network of sources. This concept of a network is fundamental to the concept of institutional power.

Institutional power is based on the work of French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. On studying psychiatric institutions, Foucault found that power was networked rather than being top down and that it flowed through all who worked in the institution. My research into extremism on social media shows a similar pattern, with a network of power and discourses flowing through a multitude of pages. Although there are key authority figures that are more significant, their message still resides within a given framework of the three key meta narratives. Given the way the internet is structured, social media is well suited to networked forms of power.

Despite the social media saturation by Islamic extremists there is still a great deal of moral inertia to overcome. While some research has suggested forms of moral disengagement, my research leans more toward a form of moral reframing. Rather than seeing terrorists as not having a sense of morality, instead they have a very different moral framework where killing in the name of God is not just moralit is an obligation of every Muslim. From this, two key questions arise: how do terrorist recruiters achieve this change? And what can be done about it?

Future pacing

Terrorists use a concept in recruitment called future pacing whereby they encourage recruits to look at what they can achieve in the future with a key focus on jihad and martyrdom. Essentially, they reframe the recruit in the future tense of a given action and then reorient them back to the present tense, with the mind-set that the action has already occurred in the future. They use key statements to create a picture of their future position as an extremist or terrorist which is aimed at directing their current pathway. Online media forms are critical to this role.

Future pacing by terrorist recruiters can only be effective if it operates as a type of isolated institution on social media. Achieving this institutional isolation is not as difficult as one might think given that those prone to Islamic extremism are quickly embedded in a social media network that continually reinforces extremist discourses and ideologies as well as limited exposure to competing ideas or rationalities. In addition, research indicates that people with more extreme views tend to seek out similar viewpoints, thus reinforcing their extremism.

Extremists will not typically be dissuaded from their beliefs by a single grand narrative or creative pleas, but rather constant comparisons that are designed to erode away at extremist ideologies and create a sense of disillusionment with radicalism. While this may sound like a straightforward strategy in theory, in practice it is much more problematic. Thus, the final part of this article will be dedicated to ways of achieving this as well as potential roadblocks.


Social media sites are cost free, global and not subject to government interventions. Although these sites have policies relating to the use of offensive material, this has not prevented an explosion of Islamic extremist influence on these social media sites. Even when extremist pages or videos are removed, they quickly reappear under different names. There are also privacy issues to consider as well as judgements that would need to be made about what constitutes an extremist or offensive piece of material.

Jumping into this complex minefield is not something that large corporations or governments are keen to do. However, there have been attempts to circumvent such problems. For example, in Australia earlier this year laws were passed where internet service providers must retain personal details as well as information about data for a short period of time. While privacy concerns have been raised, these laws are subject to strict regulations and can only be used where threats to national security are involved. Coupled with this is the tracking of social media by intelligence agencies. However, as the number of threats grows, the ability to track becomes more difficult.

Dealing with this problem will require cooperation from both private corporations as well as coalitions of governments. At stake from a government perspective is the security of individual nations as well as global security. Meanwhile, corporations have financial and privacy interests and any government attempts to interfere with or regulate social media sites would undermine their profitability and just transfer the problem to another newly created social media platform.

One possible strategy is for social media sites to use advanced algorithms to present alternative arguments. In the same way that music algorithms can suggest possible ‘likes’ in relation to a given song, social media sites could suggest alternate views based on the type of material searched. These algorithms would not break any privacy laws and could serve to create measurement points to compare a person’s level of extremism. Also, suggestions of alternate considerations could help break the cycle of seeking out only  like-minded extreme views.

Finally, it is important to note that there is no simple solution to the problem of extremists on social media. Multiple strategies will be needed with cooperation between private corporations and governments. The need to interrupt the strategy of future pacing is critical, especially given the way extremism is often developed in isolation. Naturally, all strategies are premised on an understanding of the messages and ways in which social media is used to propagate extremism.

  • The Paris attacks

    While the average person was getting on with life in Paris before the  terror bombings and shootings on November 13, Twitter threads in Arabic from the Middle East were urging for attacks to be launched upon coalition forces in their home countries. “Advance, advance – forward, forward” they said, regarding Paris.

    Iraqi forces had warned coalition countries one day before the attack that IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had called for “[…] bombings or assassinations or hostage taking in the coming days”. In addition, social media message “Telegrams” from The Islamic State Media Center’s Al-Hayat were telling that something more sinister may be afloat, or at least in the works. In late September, 2015, IS made use of the new channels tool, on Telegrams, setting up its very own channel called Nashir, which translates as “distributor” in English.

  • Social media advantage

    Social media is prominent in recruitment strategies used by terrorist groups, in particular, IS. Facebook is a key platform to gather young fans, supporters and recruits to incite them to acts of violence by the means of propaganda and the use of Islamic grievance. When it comes to real-time orchestrating of terror events, IS is adopting encrypted messaging applications – including Kik, Surespot, Wickr and Telegram, as previously mentioned – that are very difficult to compromise or even hack.

    What is advantageous for IS is that messages being sent have what is termed a “burn time” which means they will be deleted after a certain time and will not show up on a phone or other device. This benefits recruiters as it means they can fly under the radar more readily which makes it more difficult for agencies to detect and prevent attacks. There was also speculation that IS uses the PlayStation 4 network to recruit and plan attacks. Belgium’s deputy prime minister and minister of security and home affairs, Jan Jambon, said PlayStation4 was more difficult for authorities to monitor than WhatsApp and other applications.

  • After the Paris attacks

    Not long after the attacks in Paris, IS released an audio and written statement claiming the attack as its own from command central. This was systematically and widely broadcast across social media platforms.

    Contained in this statement were future warnings that “[…] this is just the beginning of attacks […]”. At the same time, a propaganda video entitled “What are you waiting for?” was circulated on Facebook, Twitter and Telegrams. IS continues to use social media as part of its terror campaign. Its aim is to maintain the focus of its recruits and fighters within coalition countries. It also aims to further recruit home-grown jihadists to acts of violence while driving fear into the heartland of European and Western countries. While privacy is on everyone’s mind, encryption applications have gained momentum to allow people to communicate without worrying about unwanted third party access. Unfortunately, terrorists have also utilised these features as a means to go undetected in organising real-time operations and preparation for terrorist attacks. Terrorists are ahead of the game and we don’t want to be playing continual catch-up.

    If terrorists are to continue using these applications to arrange acts of terrorism in a covert manner, then security agencies need to be able to balance the collection of information from technological advanced services with that of human intelligence. Dealing with the threat of misuse of encrypted applications by IS and other terror organisations, would mean that law enforcement and agencies would require access to encrypted communications. While one could argue this may compromise data security and that it should also be assessed alongside internet vulnerabilities, this must be balanced against the current climate of security threat both domestically and internationally.

Robyn Torok

Dr Robyn Torok researches social media and online radicalisation at the Security Research Institute, Edith Cowan University. The focus of Robyn’s research explores the way in which social media is being used by jihadists as a form of an institution to govern behaviour of Australian recruits to acts of martyrdom in the west and abroad. Her research includes on-line radicalisation,counter-terrorism, policy, intelligence, eschatology and the impacts upon terrorist radicalisation, narratives, national security, Islamic State ideology and Middle East affairs.