Ideological extremists and terrorists have taken to the Internet and social media in particular to spread their beliefs and recruit like-minded individuals, and Middle Eastern governments need to start countering extremist messages through the same channels, according to speakers at a conference of Arab interior ministers called to address collective security issues last week.
Various press reports quoted Mohammed Kuman, Secretary General of the Council of Arab Interior Ministers, as saying that “extremist thought... on social networks has resulted in a major increase in terrorist acts, political assassinations and sectarian conflicts.” Kuman went on: “As it has become impossible to control the content of social networks, it is important to produce counter-speech.” In the end, “Ideas can only be fought by ideas.”
While terrorists on social media undoubtedly pose a real threat, it’s worth noting that some Middle Eastern regimes (like Syria) opportunistically label any domestic opponent as a terrorist in order to justify harsh repressive measures. I can only hope pro-democracy activists and human rights campaigners using social media to raise awareness won’t be subject to the same kind of counter-messaging as people advocating extremist violence -- but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.
Returning to the threat posed by “legit” terrorists on social media, and how to counter it, in 2011 I wrote about a project by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to identify, track, and eventually counter social media movements that threaten key U.S. interests. According to the DARPA solicitation, “the general goal of the Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) program is to develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base” that can “detect, classify, measure and track... formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts,” including "purposeful or deceptive messaging and information”; “recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities”; “identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns”; and carry out “counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.”