For individuals, social networking means sharing small moments and major events in life. For businesses, social media marketing can help build brands. For terrorist groups such as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, social networks increasingly are the tool of choice for delivering messages of hate and recruiting new members to their cause.
ISIS has exploited Twitter to send out propaganda on a regular basis, according to a Brookings Institute report, and attempts to shut it down have been unsuccessful for the most part.
At least 300 Americans actively supporting ISIS were using social media to spread propaganda on the terror group’s behalf, according to a December report from The George Washington University Program on Extremism.
Government and corporate efforts have failed to silence the hateful rhetoric. The hacktivist collective Anonymous, which entered the fray last month, so far has functioned as little more than a nuisance.
Anonymous hackers made headlines in November, when they reportedly replaced an ISIS site with an ad for Viagra, but the barrage of ISIS posts, rants and propaganda has continued unabated.
Game of Whack-a-Mole
One reason that it could be impossible to silence ISIS on social media is that as quickly as an account is shut down another one can be created.
“It is very much like a game of whack-a-mole,” said Ben Fitzgerald, senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, or CNAS.
“It is too easy to create another account or use an app that lets them hijack another account,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Anonymous has taken credit for shutting down upwards of 5,000 Twitter accounts, but it “is unclear if all those accounts were truly from ISIS,” said Fitzgerald.
Lack of Infrastructure
Another reason that the most notorious hacker collective in the world can’t do much damage to ISIS in the digital arena is that ISIS doesn’t have much in the way of high-tech operations.
“It is easier to go after IBM or Google — entities that have servers and corporate infrastructure where there is something to take down,” explained Christopher Paul, senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation.
“Where is the ISIS infrastructure? They have none, so it makes it that much harder to take down,” he told TechNewsWorld.
ISIS functions much like a federated network, with individuals going online at the behest of the would-be caliphate. It seems the group can’t be taken down without taking down Twitter and all the other social media sites as well.
News reports may have overemphasized the role social media has played in recruiting individuals to ISIS and other radical groups. In truth, ISIS is no more successful in using social media toward that end than any other organization, whether legitimate or illicit.
“You really have to go look for the ISIS message to find it,” said Alan Webber, research director for national security and intelligence at IDC.
“Unless you are bent in that direction, it isn’t going to show up on your feed,” he told TechNewsWorld. “I know it doesn’t pop up on my social feeds!”
The Devil You Know
However, ISIS isn’t using social media merely to spread propaganda or as a recruitment tool.
Social media may have been a means of coordinating the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, according to reports.
“Social media sites are just one way that groups like ISIS run operations and even plan attacks,” said CNAS’ Fitzgerald.
That might seem like a good reason to work more strenuously to silence the group — but it’s “a double-edged sword,” Fitzgerald suggested.
“On the one hand, we want to limit the propaganda and limit the lines of communication,” he said, “but on the other hand, we want to be able to monitor their operations.”
That has posed a longstanding dilemma for spy agencies tracking potential targets. If you identify a source and shut it down — whether making an arrest or making a kill — you lose intelligence.
“You have to do it in a way that is to your advantage,” said Paul. “Shutting down a line of communication means you can’t monitor it and perhaps [you’ll] even send it deeper underground,” noted Paul.
It’s unlikely any efforts to silence ISIS would drive the group to the dark Web, however, which for the most part is not accessible using popular search engines and browsers.
“The vast majority of those who even have access to a computer are not that sophisticated that they could gain much by going to the dark Web,” said Paul.
“That said, it is possible that some of the more tech-savvy ISIS hackers could communicate via the dark Web, but most would find the same trouble as the wannabe hacker in going to such places,” he suggested.
It is also unlikely that ISIS — or other terrorist organizations — utilize the dark Web for the trading of goods or services.
“Criminal entities use the dark Web’s markets, and while ISIS may certainly rely on black markets, it isn’t clear if that really extends to the techno black markets,” said Paul.
Chat Rooms, Forums, Messages Boards and More
Communication among members of radical groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and others isn’t limited to social media. The Paris attacks, for example, may have been discussed via the SonyPlayStation 4 over the PlayStation Network, according to reports.
Chat rooms, forums, message boards and other forms of online communication are prime methods for engaging in illicit communications, in part because they are easy to access yet difficult to monitor.
“We don’t know all the ways that [ISIS] communicates,” said IDC’s Webber.
“This isn’t new, and it is really a centuries-old problem, as it is harder to monitor all the communication, but a lot of it is right out in the open,” he added.
“Throw in veiled speech — such as ‘delivering a package,'” and interpreting the chatter gets more complicated, noted RAND’s Paul. That could mean delivering an explosive device just as easily as it could mean taking a turkey to grandmother’s house.
“Simple code words only make it that much more difficult to monitor,”he said.
Paired With Human Intelligence
Even when the bad guys are monitored, the amount of information obtained is limited. Anonymous likely will be unsuccessful in defeating ISIS, because even if the group somehowwere silenced online, that wouldn’t budge it from the territory it controls.
Nor would silencing ISIS likely eliminate the potential for future Paris-style attacks.
“We can’t fall into this false idea that we could just fight the group with technology alone,” said CNAS’ Fitzgerald.
“We can’t simply throw big data at the problem — no more than we can just bomb them into submission,” he added. “To stop these groups, or at least stop future attacks, efforts will have to be paired with traditional human intelligence, and the balance will always change.”