When a powerful denial-of-service attack brought down Sony’s PlayStation Network on Sunday, a group that claimed responsibility said it had acted on behalf of the Islamic State, the rapidly growing terrorist organization in the Middle East. Even if the “Lizard Squad” had nothing to do with it, the story was just another example of Islamic State’s devilish skill at promoting itself on social networks.
“Kuffar don’t get to play videogames until bombing of the ISIL stops,” the account @LizardSquad tweeted out, using a derogatory Arabic term for “unbelievers.” The account later reported a bomb threat to a flight from Dallas to San Diego; John Smedley, Sony’s head of digital entertainment, was on the plane, which was diverted to Phoenix, apparently because of the tweet.
Though another hacker, going by the handle @FamedGod, also claimed responsibility for the attack on PlayStation Network – with somewhat more persuasive detail – Islamic State supporters had already had their line cited by many media outlets.
That’s what you’d expect from an organization running perhaps the most successful international recruitment campaign in terrorism history. According to a recent Soufan Group report, more than 12,000 foreign fighters, 3,000 of them from Western countries, have joined the war in Syria since the three-year conflict began. Many of these fighters joined Islamic State, and one – who, judging by his accent, grew up in Britain – beheaded the photojournalist James Foley.
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Social networks are a powerful tool for luring these people into the organization. Terrorist groups have always used YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to draw young people into their ideological orbit, later pulling the most dedicated recruits down into the encrypted, unindexed “Dark Web” and then bringing them over to fight for the cause.
Islamic State, however, has the easy sophistication of a social media marketing startup – even apparently using pictures of its fighters with cute kittens labeled as “little mewjahideen.” Then there was the so-called Nutella campaign, in which fighters posed with jars of the chocolatey goo. They looked as friendly and accessible as terrorists could be.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are the executions, which arguably have a more powerful recruiting appeal to radicalized Muslim youths.
Islamic State even developed an app, called the Dawn of Glad Tidings, that automatically retweeted the organization’s posts through the accounts of those who downloaded it. That worked nicely to increase the group’s social footprint, but its social media experts are not above doing a lot of manual labor to support trending hashtags and lift them into the global top list.
Twitter has been cracking down on Islamic State accounts lately, so they’ve moved to other networks, such as the decentralized Diaspora, where users fully control the content on their nodes, known as “pods.”
I am not bothered with the way Islamic State uses social tools. Whether we want it or not, many of these fighters are Millennials, part of a generation that grew up networked. Since Mark Zuckerberg threw his platform open to everyone, not just a select circle of Ivy League students, there has been no way to exclude anyone from using similar networks, and it takes all kinds to make a world. What does bother me are the misguided attempts to censor the terrorist group out of existence.
Writing for the Financial Times, Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor, called for the platforms to establish “ethics boards” to handle censorship and archiving. “Major platforms should not allow themselves to become vehicles for the easy dissemination of propaganda that depicts staged murder,” he wrote. “Shutting down Isis accounts will not remove this material from the internet. But it will make it harder to find and harder to distribute.”
What is the point of making it harder for Islamic State to distribute its heinous materials (and its kitten pictures, too)? It makes a travesty of the freedom of expression and it does no damage to the group’s recruitment efforts. Those who want that type of content will track it down or receive it from friends, anyway. “Regardless of platform, the target audience (young and emotionally engaged) does not get news or information about the war from traditional sources,” writes Richard Barrett in the Soufan Group report. “Potential foreign fighters are interconnected within self-selected bubbles, and are isolated from anything outside.”
Islamic State’s frantic social activity on the Internet doesn’t call for censorship, but rather for the use of the National Security Agency’s giant snooping potential. People who post selfies with Kalashnikovs from IS-controlled areas are probably terrorists, and their social network connections should be explored, not disrupted. People who retweet videos of beheadings with approving comments may also be of interest to terrorism fighters. The unchecked spread of information is an opportunity, not a threat.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books.