Alexander Trowbridge was kind enough to interview me for his piece on ISIS' use of social media. I think he did a great job of capturing what is interesting about this group's communications strategy without overstating the impact that social media has in the conflict. It is easy to get caught up in the hype and he didn't do that.
Conflict and communications go hand in hand. They always have. It is important to keep that in mind as we look at how extremists leverage social platforms. In most cases these groups are not doing anything novel (from a technical perspective) or using the tools in a dramatically different fashion than the rest of us. Their message is different, and horrifying, but the mechanics (with a few exceptions) are mostly the same.
I suspect that at some point, probably in the near future, this will cease to become a story. Social media has been woven into the fabric of global communications. It is the new norm and should rightfully take its place along side radio, television and print media as an expected platform for information warfare. Governments and terrorists have recognized this for quite some time. The general public is still catching up.
That is not to say that this is not a new and different landscape. It is. The directness and frequency of communication between absolutely barbaric forces of evil and people far removed from conflict is relatively new. But now mobile phones are carried into battle nearly as ubiquitously as AK-47s. There are no journalists dragging their feet on a story or softening the blow through polite omission of horrifying content. Terrorists and other barbarians have a direct line to potentially billions of people and they are going to use it. The dream of access and reach appeals to them as much, if not more so, than the rest of us.
So what can you do? You can chase after accounts and try to get them banned. You can engage them and battle it out online. You can even counter propaganda with accurate information. But the best move,for most, is to just ignore them. Do as little as you can to assist them in their attempt to spread fear and intimidation. Stop taking their propaganda at face value. Stop reflexively re-tweeting. Learn how to recognize common disinformation tactics (such as tweeting grainy photos as evidence of military progress). Try, just try, to be smarter than the enemy. This won't stop them but over time it might just slow them down.
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