Monday, April 13, 2015

ISIS vs. Silicon Valley Cyber Wars

By James McFarlin

Terrorist groups such as ISIS are increasingly using social media tools as means of recruitment, training, fundraising and radicalization.  Some estimates place ISIS's volume of Twitter posts alone at 90,000 per day.

Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and other tools also form the basis for the radicals' command and control systems, providing ideal communication and planning tools with which to coordinate attacks.

ISIS and other groups' adept use of social media has attracted an estimated 3,000 Westerners to come to Syria and join the fight.  ISIS also produces a slick monthly English-language magazine named Dabiq.  This professionally-produced publication spreads messages of jihad and hate as well as instructions for terrorist actions such as bomb building and law enforcement avoidance.

Countering such messages is an increasingly difficult task for U.S. security agencies. Terrorist websites can and do pop up in alternative form if taken down, continuing their work.

Frustrated with its lack of social media reach against the terrorists, U.S. authorities have recently turned to America's tech titans to help counter the militants.  Foreign governments have also joined the fray.  French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve recently visited Silicon Valley, urging U.S. tech firms to do more to rid their services of extremist postings.

This awkward relationship has also been aggravated as foreign governments recently assailed American social media companies as being too complicit with the U.S. National Security Agency.

Being drawn into a global war is a foreign experience for tech firms, and leaves them increasingly struggling with uncomfortable requests obliging them to spy on their own users.  Not complying places the firms in the position of being accused of supporting the broadcasting of hateful images that incite terrorism and facilitate radicalization.

Companies such as Apple which have pushed encryption in their products have produced cries of protest from U.S. security agencies.  The FBI, for example, suddenly finds itself less able to tap into the firm's public communications streams.

Other unintended consequences await U.S. firms.  Twitter employees recently received death threats from ISIS groups when the company removed online terrorist content from its data streams.  ISIS has also called out for the assassination of two American imams who have spoken out against the terrorist group's ideology using social media.

Where will these conflicting interests and needs lead?  No one knows for certain.  But the battlefields of the "Twitter wars" as they are sometimes called are clearly in their infancy.  Such conflicts will most certainly be played out in vigorous, unexpected ways over the coming months and years.


  1. thank you for such an informative post. i needed the content for a school assignment and your post helped me with it. keep us updated with more articles and thoroughly written content