Department of Homeland Security officials are becoming increasingly alarmed by the volume of terrorist messaging on social media sites and the ability of groups like Islamic State to radicalize more and more young people in the United States.
The statistics surrounding the use of social media by terrorist organizations, particularly groups like the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), are astounding. Radical Islamic terrorist organizations are believed to be behind upwards of 200,000 tweets per day. And U.S. officials are beginning to see what they call social media “micro-targeting” of young children by terrorist recruiters sitting thousands of miles away.
“ISIL is not your parents’ al-Qaida,” FBI Director James Comey told the Aspen Security Forum Wednesday. “They have adopted a model that takes advantage of social media in a way to crowdsource terrorism. They are preaching through social media to troubled souls urging them to join their so-called Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, or if you can’t join, kill where you are. And Twitter is a valuable enterprise because it works to sell shoes or to sell ideas, and it works to sell this message to troubled souls.”
All of these trends have now led to a serious debate throughout Congress and the homeland security community about defining the moral obligations of the social media companies that operate the platforms.
The Justice Department has made 50 arrests during the last 18 months related to ISIS activity in the U.S. There are now active investigations of similar terrorist activities in all 50 states. And U.S. officials say the spread of ISIS activity is being facilitated almost entirely through social media.
“Linked to the fact that it is social media, we’re seeing a definite change in the demographics of those we are arresting,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin said. “It is younger. Around 80 percent are 30 years old or younger, and of those about 40 percent are 21 years old or younger. These terrorists are targeting our children, and they’re doing so where they play. And where they play these days is not in the playground down the street, and that’s not where they’re forming relationships — it’s online and through social media.”
Homeland security officials said groups like ISIS begin by bombarding social media with images, videos and other propaganda. A recruiter waits until they get a young person interested and then they begin to indoctrinate them one-on-one. Those sessions are quickly moved onto private chat rooms and encrypted communications that counterterrorism officials are unable to intercept.
“We need to get better at identifying where those communications come from but also … the companies need to get better at making their platforms safe for children and to keep terrorists off of them,” Carlin said. “It’s good business to make sure your platform is safe.”
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who now serves as the executive chairman of the Chertoff Group, said one of the debates currently underway is whether it’s better to allow people to talk about terrorism on social media so that it can be monitored rather than shutting it down entirely.
Another issue is deciding what the obligations of social media companies are to alert authorities to individuals who might be on the verge of committing a violent crime. “Legally, I don’t see a problem with companies doing that,” Chertoff said. “The question is is there some kind of public pressure that will push these social media companies into doing kind of the right thing — sort of the ‘see something, say something’ — when people on their platforms are threatening to do something.”
But Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, said the administration would like to see a more systematic and aggressive effort by the social media industry to work on this issue.
“If you seek out and go to Twitter or some of the other companies to say, ‘help us address this specific issue’ … there is a good deal of cooperation,” Monaco said. “What we are all struggling with and what we need more help with is a systematic way to go about addressing what I feel has become an exponential threat posed to the homeland by ISIL.”
“When you think about the sheer math involved, 2,000 fan boys that ISIL may have — hashtag Jihadis that are actually pushing out some of the most egregious content — if they have, and by some numbers they do, 50,000 followers each, just simply do the math there. We need social media companies to help us address that,” Monaco said. “We want them to take these accounts down more aggressively.”