Digitised hate: Meeting challenges of online radicalism, violent extremism

Terrorists use the internet in much the same way as society does – to communicate, collaborate and convince.
Messages are directed at multiple audiences, though it is youngsters who are targeted. Adolescents have a heavy online presence and they are susceptible to simplistic, yet alluring extremist narratives that emphasise parsimonious solutions to what are, in reality, complex problems.
How then does the internet impact radicalisation?
First, information technology creates more opportunities for radicalisation by breaking down barriers of geography and space, allowing extremists to interact with what would otherwise be unreachable target audiences in a real-time format.

Second, social media networks algorithmically connect like-minded individuals and amplify their passions. This is the core of their business model. These inter-personal linkages can also channel people into “echo” chambers where emotive content that would otherwise be deemed objectionable in the physical world gains a degree of acceptability in cyber space.
Third, the internet can give the illusion of strength in numbers where radicals brought together by online journals, blogs and chat rooms, see themselves not as individuals but as an active part of a broader, networked extremist movement that operates nationally, regionally or even internationally.
Fourth, the internet ensures a degree of anonymity – something that is true for sites that enable encrypted communications such as WhatsApp. This facet can encourage otherwise risk-averse individuals to engage in actions that they would not normally do in the physical world.

Fifth, the internet offers a “one-stop shop” for all information an extremist may need to carry out a violent action from how to manufacture and place IEDs to suggestions for alternative, cheap methods of attack (such as the recent tactic of using trucks as ramming weapons) and ways of best publicising a successful operation. It opens the way for cyber-coaching, allowing militant leaders to keep in near-constant contact with attackers and facilitate their actions.
Sixth, the internet allows individuals to access radical content from the comfort of their own personal space without having to attend secret gatherings at a pre-arranged meeting place. It enhances self-radicalisation and gives rise to lone-wolf terrorism.
Seventh, the internet offers a cheap and effective propaganda capability and an online platform for infusing terror.

Terrorist use of the internet in Pakistan and Afghanistan has direct relevance for India’s national security.
Twitter is being used to promote riots and protests in Kashmir and now that the province has been stripped of its special autonomous status, groups such as the LeT (acting through JuD) will seek to escalate the tempo of this unrest online.
Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) may leverage encrypted social media sites, secure telecom platforms and online mapping technology to covertly facilitate jihadist recruitment drives or support terrorist strikes in the region.
Because information technology has been so integral to the genesis of leaderless resistance, it could be used to inspire militant strikes by lone or semi-independent actors in India. Working from its enclaves in Afghanistan, IS has been doing this to attack the US, and there is no reason why similar action could not be undertaken in India.
Should a US troop drawdown occur in Afghanistan – something that President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for – it would create a void that terrorists would seek to fill by leveraging instruments of both physical and cyber power.
A social media effort to radicalise young Sikhs is being waged by pro-Khalistani militants in Pakistan and diaspora groups operating out of the US, UK and Canada. The ISI is orchestrating much of this as part of a campaign to co-join instability in Punjab with unrest in Kashmir.

Action in this area will require governments, civil society groups and the private sector to collaborate to fine-tune solutions.
Thus far, the focus has been on introducing legislation and initiatives that allow governing authorities to identify, block and delete any malignant electronic information deemed to pose a national security risk.
While such measures may temporarily disrupt the propaganda, recruitment and operational activities of terrorist groups, they are stop-gap remedies that militants can overcome by switching to other platforms, communicating through VoIPs, accessing virtual private networks (VPNs), opening new accounts or simply operating through above ground Islamic proxies.
Approaches along these lines have implications for three values that democratic nations hold as sacrosanct: Freedom of speech, the right to privacy and net neutrality.
An effective response would involve directly intervening in the process of radicalisation. Bringing communication experts and civil society groups together to develop and execute alternative messaging campaigns that challenge the foundations of terrorist propaganda are essential, as is promoting awareness among youngsters so they can make informed choices.
Timing is key. There is a brief window of opportunity to influence an individual who has exhibited an initial interest in an extremist ideology. Tech companies must proactively champion digital resilience by ensuring condemnations and alternatives to terrorism are sufficiently present and accessible online.
Finally, there is room for developing responses that have a more tactical and strategic bent, especially in the short term. Police forces, spy agencies and service providers could, for example, exploit online interactions of terrorists to gain intelligence on their activities and gather evidence. Such interventions could blunt violent online logistical and operational designs.
Digitisation is modern world’s most liberating innovation. This communication tool should be used for the purpose it was created – to promote knowledge, debate, discussion and inclusivity – rather than subverted to sow the seeds of intolerance, hatred and violence.

The writer is a US-based counter terrorism and security expert at RAND Corporation. The article is an abridged version of the 2nd KPS Gill Memorial Lecture he delivered in Mohali on Wednesday

Source: https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/digitised-hate-meeting-challenges-of-online-radicalism-violent-extremism/story-uMSsevgcC3n1GJmC5R0i4N.html


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