Earlier this month I attended the Web Summit conference in Lisbon where, among an assorted crowd of politicians, coders, and Silicon Valley millionaires born in the 1990s, I sat on a panel discussing the role narratives play in 21st-century terrorism. Speaking alongside me was Helan Abdulla -- known as Helly Luv, a Kurdish-Finnish singer, dancer, and actress -- who told our audience a story.
As a Kurd, Luv told us, she had taken an interest in the Syrian civil war from its beginnings. In a February 2014 music video titled Risk It All and filmed inside a Syrian refugee camp filled with Kurdish refugees fleeing the war, Luv proudly sang about Kurdish independence dressed in high heels and a short dress, while backing dancers held AK-47s.
Luv received a barrage of online abuse -- including death threats -- both for its political content as well as its supposed provocative imagery. Things only worsened with her next video, Revolution, which continued the central themes of Risk It All.
But it was with the emergence of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) into the global consciousness -- with its capture of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, in June 2014 -- that things got really bad for her. It was Mosul's fall that prompted the autonomous Kurdish regional government to expand its borders, seizing vital oil areas as the Iraqi military retreated in the face of the IS's blitzkrieg across the country.
Just weeks after Mosul fell, she posted photos to her Facebook account of her visiting Kurdish Peshmerga troops, who had recently been involved in fighting IS, and told Reuters she had been close to Mosul, which lies less than 10 kilometers from Kurdish territory.
As we sat on the panel in Lisbon, Luv recounted the almost daily torrent of death threats and abuse she received -- from Islamists, jihadists, and IS sympathizers -- and, most critically of all, her repeated reporting of all of it to both Twitter and Facebook. Despite the clear threats against her life, nothing was done. No accounts were taken down; the threats continued.
Luv's story is a key to a central problem of battling terrorism in the age of social media. IS has become arguably the most effective and globally renowned terrorist group in history because of its effective use of social-networking sites. IS is not just an extremist organization, it is a brand -- and a global one at that. Its ability to recruit members everywhere from France to the United States and to get its message into the international mainstream media is only possible through the ability of sites like Facebook and Twitter to do two things above all else -- to mobilize people and to amplify messages.
IS understood this from the beginning -- and it also understood something else, too. Social-media sites, from which we increasingly get our news and information about the world are, above all, capitalist enterprises. Facebook and Twitter may be so ubiquitous as to seem a part of the fabric of life, but they are not neutral -- they are designed to generate as many clicks and shares as they can, to encourage as many users to join. The more of these they get, the more advertising revenue they generate, the more their shareholders benefit. It's a story as old as capitalism itself.
Using West's Freedom Against It
Social-media platforms also have something else of great use to extremist groups like IS: A libertarian ethos; the belief that people should be free to say what they want is more or less the idea at the heart of the founding of social networks. If there is any doubt over this fact then a quick scroll through Islamist or alt-right Twitter accounts should rapidly assuage it. The idea is especially embedded given the censorship of the Internet that goes on in countries like Iran and China. No American company wants its practices to be compared to those of a totalitarian state. And rightly so.
So in its early days IS was able to rely on a vast network of thousands of "fan boys," sometimes deemed -- with grandiose hilarity -- the "Knights of the Uploading" to promote the group's content; everything from fatwas and pronouncements to videos showing idyllic life in the caliphate to, of course, barbaric videos of killings. The fan boys would also, of course, threaten and harass anyone, especially high-profile targets, deemed to be pushing against their narrative.
U.S. government officials involved in anti-IS counter-messaging have spoken to me of their frustration at this: at how their adversary was able to wage information war using Western technologies to promote their narratives so successfully. But Facebook and Twitter, which have more users than most countries have populations, carry huge lobbying power in Washington and the major European capitals. Until recently, the social-networking giants largely left these accounts alone, and there was little that U.S. officials could do to change that.
Thinking began to shift with the horrific video of the beheading of journalist James Foley on August 19, 2014. There had been beheading videos before, of course, but this was of a different order entirely. This was an American civilian beheaded in a video with high production values that went global. Almost every major news network carried the story, with many showing the video as well.
The uproar was international and -- critically -- much of it came from tens of thousands of Facebook and Twitter users, many of whom castigated the companies for allowing the video to be broadcast on their platforms, while others vowed not to retweet or share it.
Pressure from the U.S. State Department was one thing, but criticism from users was another. Finally, Facebook and Twitter began to dramatically up the rate at which they took down pro-IS accounts. For every one taken down a new one would invariably spring up -- it became a game of cat and mouse between users and the platforms -- a war of attrition.
Finding The Limits Of Online Behavior
And to a degree it has worked: Many pro-IS accounts still undoubtedly remain; but the fan boys can no longer act with near impunity on Twitter and Facebook and have been forced to take refuge in services like Telegram, the private messaging app. Recruitment still goes on as before but spreading propaganda virally across networks has become more difficult.
But not, alas, impossible: High-profile anti-IS tweeters and Facebookers are still harassed and attacked with regularity. The propaganda still flows. Freedom of speech is sacrosanct but many think the time has come for governments and the networks to come together to create a formal, legally binding code of conduct of what is acceptable behavior on social-networking sites.
The freedom to offend and to discomfort must remain -- this is an inviolable element of free speech, and one guaranteed by law in the constitutions of countries like the United States. At the same time, terrorists must not be given a platform through which they can manufacture more murderers.
The task is a difficult one. But the time has come to face it.