• Desmond Latham

Charlottesville and IS – the social media connection


James Fields Jr, second left, who appeared in a Charlottesville court on Monday, August 14, after he is alleged to have driven a car into anti-right wing protesters on Sunday, killing one and injuring 30.

Extremists are using digital methods to spread their messages to people who are receptive to the most radical views, whether right wing neo-Nazi Christian or Muslim fundamentalist.

This remains one of the most challenging aspects to a free internet and has become a central premise of those wishing to reduce freedoms on the internet.

This is not new, according to research conducted by US-based intelligence group SITE, pro-IS technology groups have created more than 11,000 social media accounts in July 2017 alone. At the same time, white supremacists have flocked to the internet to support the actions of a driver of a car that ploughed into protesters at Charlottesville in Virginia, killing one and injuring 35.

The increase in the use of social media and the internet is happening at a time when access to extremism is as easy as selecting your site of preference on your smartphone. It's also happening as data becomes cheaper and with billions of devices now linked to networks globally, security services are finding it more and more difficult to monitor fundamentalists.

In the Charlottesville case, the use of Twitter in particular has seen extremist views espoused openly and as a rallying call. The 140 character-limit means positions and posturing is immediately simplified with the following types of comments posted after a car driven by a right wing white male was driven into protesters a few blocks from an alt-right gathering.

While countries like Russia, China, Ethiopia and Rwanda control access to information on the internet, others allow free speech to predominate. But this has led to a contradiction in the practice of freedom, with the abuse of the rights to free speech now linked directly to propaganda targeting young men and women across the world.

Neo-Nazi and what's become known as the "alt-right" groupings in the US have seen their numbers swell as they tap into adolescent alienation as a method and strategy to distribute their communication. In the same way, IS and other fundamentalist movements in the Muslim world have used a sense of indignation and alienation among their younger supporters to build an entire digital army.

al-Qaeda began using message boards more than a decade ago in order to drum up support among disenfranchised Muslims globally. In 2013 for example, AP reported that al-Qaeda was using using secretive chat rooms and encrypted internet message boards to plan and coordinate attacks. In one case quoted by the news agency, at least 19 diplomatic posts in Africa and the Middle East were closed for more than a week after threats. This has morphed in the modern era with the constant use of social media accounts to reach people across the world. When Idlib in Syria recently fell to government forces, one of the snipers taken into custody was a German teenager who'd been radicalised on chat rooms.

German teen from Pulsnitz who told Syrian Army forces she was radicalised online in chat rooms. ©Twitter

The global aspects of this form of communication can also be seen in the story of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik – a couple who murdered 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California. They were lauded after committing the murders by IS despite leaving behind a 6-month-old baby girl.

Experts in strategy say that IS and the white right in the US have the advantage of using the equivalent of digital guerilla war against various establishments across the world. In the same way that IS is a conglomeration of mainly men who feel strongly enough to commit their bodies to a struggle, the white right in the US has similar characteristics. One of the strongest ties to both is the internet and the ability to communicate anonymously with like-minded people who live in foreign countries and on far-flung continents.

While most alt-right supporters still pose publicly, the IS supporters have shifted their propaganda techniques according to researchers at Quilliam International. Researcher Gurwinder Bhogal who has been tracking a set of radicals called the Tawheed Network (formerly al-Muhajiroun) for decades believes they've swapped megaphones for subterfuge online.

He says they now consider themselves agents of the Islamic State, or Isis, and have formed "online communication channels with foreign jihadis all over the world", writing in Quilliam online, published on August 7 2017.

His belief is that the strategy is pernicious as it's led to a new online language which combines a form of street Arabic, Urdu and English making it more difficult for those monitoring online conversation to break into the code. For example he writes: "The most common Jihadese term for moderate Muslim is now 'munafiq', sometimes abbreviated to 'moony'."

This could make tracking radicals who support IS and other fundamentalist Muslim groups more difficult as they use the digital links but obscure their identity as well as their true communication. Stratfor, the global intelligence group, has also warned about the growing threat posed by Islamists who use the mechanism of social media to distribute material.

"So we're seeing grassroots operatives, places like Toulouse, France, or Brussels, Belgium, wearing Go Pro cameras in order to make their own propaganda videos that they can then post on social media and go viral," he said in an article entitled Terrorism Theatre and Social Media. "So we're even seeing this idea of the terrorist spectacular migrating down to the grassroots level, from the main group level, and that's a very interesting thing to follow, especially in this age of social media, of video games and it all kind of ties together with this technology."


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