Challenges Facing Online Counterterrorism Efforts

Policymakers and counterterrorism officials have struggled to combat terrorists use of social media. The advent of strong end-to-end encryption technology has complicated these efforts. To address these interconnected issues the Bipartisan Policy Center has released a report titled, “Digital Counterterrorism: Fighting Jihadists Online.”

The report outlines the attractiveness of social media to terrorist organizations. Social media provides a unique way for these terrorist groups to communicate with a large pool of potential sympathizers. Extremist ideologues no longer require face to face interaction to radicalize susceptible individuals. The report also explains, “…production value serves as the most readily available indicator of quality, and terrorists have grown adept at using desktop software to turn out propaganda materials that are as polished as traditional media.” Terrorists can produce content that appears credible and legitimate. The report also highlights that:

  • Social media allows for opportunities to bait prominent and credible figures into ideological debates.
  • Terrorists can target specific demographics and exploit algorithms that foster the reinforcement of preexisting biases.
  • Despite its advantages to terrorists, intelligence services have used these social media platforms to locate and better understand terrorist networks.
  • Counter-messaging has been fraught with missteps.
  • Denying terrorists access to social media platforms may require social-media companies to take a more proactive role which will present significant legal obstacles.

The report further complicates the issue of terrorists use of social media by analyzing the rise of encryption technology. The report explains, “Encrypted messaging often supplements terrorists’ use of social media, rather than replacing it altogether. A senior official at the National Counterterrorism Center explained that ‘terrorists have begun widespread use of private groups in encrypted applications to supplement traditional social media for sharing propaganda in an effort to circumvent the intelligence collection and private sector disruption of their public accounts.'” The use of encryption and the need to decrypt data in pursuit of law enforcement and counterterrorism operations involves legal, commercial and cybersecurity concerns. For this reason the report advocates closer cooperation between government and private companies in counterrorism efforts.

As acknowledged by the report social media and encryption are only tools to facilitate the exchange of ideas,  “Ultimately, jihadist terrorism will be defeated ‘only when the ambitions that motivate groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State return to the obscurity they richly deserve.'”