September 23, 2019

How do terrorists use the internet?

About the episode:

Whether it’s a manifesto posted on 8chan or an attack video uploaded to Facebook, terrorists and right-wing extremists are increasingly using the internet as a way to spread their hate-filled messages. In this episode, we find out how these groups are exploiting an entire tech ecosystem, and what is being done to combat it. Join Adam Hadley and Lorand Bodo as they speak to Matthew Feldman, director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, and Audrey Alexander, researcher and instructor at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. This conversation uncovers how violent extremist groups like ISIS are adapting to an online world, as their physical power diminishes. But does this decentralization actually make them a greater risk?

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Episode analysis:

Using new forms of communication for malign purposes is nothing new. It wasn’t long after Gutenberg invented moveable type that printed books were weaponised in the religious conflicts of the 16th century. The internet is different in degree, but not really in kind. It carries news from one side of the world to another at unimaginable speed, and is a forum for debate, discussion and collaboration. But with the good comes the bad, and the pace of technological change is such that governments struggle to keep up.

It was inevitable that terrorists would see and exploit the dark corners of the internet to propagate their world view, and so it has proved. Since 2016, we at Tech Against Terrorism have collected 45,000 URLs of websites which host terrorist material, with radical groups like ISIS the most common perpetrators. It’s stating the obvious to say that the internet pays no heed to international borders, time zones or language barriers, and frequently has little time for censorship and restriction of content. So while the internet can sometimes seem like a lawless Wild West, it would be irresponsible of liberal democracies simply to shrug and file the task under ‘too difficult’. We need instead to take on the terrorists at their own game, be more sophisticated than they are, more aware, more proactive and more agile.

It used to be the boast of the IRA that “We only need to be lucky once; you need to be lucky all the time.” The maxim still holds true in the internet age. Only one website, one host, one tiny snippet of information needs to slip through the net to have a disproportionate effect on the public narrative. A prime example was the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand in March. When a far-right white supremacist shot and killed 51 people, he emailed his 74-page manifesto, The Great Replacement, to a number of public figures, and it was picked up on internet sites like 8chan and Twitter. It was quickly taken down, and later deemed “objectionable” by the chief censor of New Zealand, but the genie was out of the bottle. That’s why tech companies – and by extension, governments – need to be swift and sure in their reactions.

However, it’s not simply a matter of would-be and actual terrorists exploiting the internet to spread propaganda and misinformation. They seek to infiltrate the whole ecosystem of cyberspace, and therefore we have to frustrate them in that. Terrorists might target open-source media, or Fintech VPNs. Their watchword is disruption, and it rapidly becomes apparent how vulnerable liberal democracies are, how reliant we have become on this kind of technology.

The most important realisation when considering terrorist exploitation of the internet is the potential scale of the threat. The great advantage of the internet has always been its global nature, the way it transcends national and geographical borders, but in that strength lies its very vulnerability too. A single piece of propaganda generated in the deserts of Syria can be viewed in Kyoto and Khartoum, Cancun and Cape Town in seconds. Finding the perpetrators may be difficult, stopping them even harder. And of course the struggle is 24/7, 365 days a year.