Today’s terrorists are as social media-savvy as any marketer

The 2015 report issued by social media agency We Are Social South Africa revealed that there are 85-million active social media users in Africa.

Take that figure and cross-reference it with the United Nations’s statistic of 20% of the African population being aged between 15 and 24 and, boom! we have 17-million youths using social media in Africa. 

If you could target only 1% of that, you would have 170 000 followers and, if equally split, you would have 3 148 followers in each African country.

That becomes 3 148 possible targets of radicalisation, recruitment practices and people to train.

The likelihood is slim, but there’s no doubt that terrorists are understanding, studying and using social media and, like any social media marketer, radicals are targeting the youth.

Cyberterrorism specialist Evan Kohlman says: “90% of terrorist activity on the internet takes place using social media tools” and has become a huge threat in Africa.

Terrorists love Twitter
Gabriel Weimann, of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, outlines how violent radicals are using social media in an article entitled New Age Terrorism and New Media. 

He writes: “Just like marketers use data insights to attract potential new fans and followers, terrorists can smell blood too and they have clever strategies for attracting, approaching and recruiting. These terrorist propagators and recruiters are often referred to as electronic jihadists.”

In June 2014, Facebook hit the milestone of 100-million African users. Weimann states that terrorists access Facebook using proxy, fake personal data and anonymisation software while browsing.

Twitter appears to be the terrorist’s most preferred social platform, according to various researchers and media. The Islamic State uses hashtags like #Calamitywillbefallus and has directly threaten the likes of Oprah Winfrey and comedian Jimmy Kimmel to get the reach, according to The Business Insider. 

Terrorists, like any other social marketer, are trend watchers and are always looking to insert themselves.

The problem is that most people take Twitter as a credible source of news.

Digital agency Rich Media’s sites are not exempt, with YouTube, for example, being viewed as “an alternative to television and a medium that allows jihadists to reach massive, global audiences,” says Weimann.

Instagram is used by 8% of South African social media users, who may stumble across 15-second microvideos of beheadings and radical content glorifying the likes of Osama bin Laden.

Fight terror with Twitter
Mark Zuckerberg has clearly stated that Facebook operates in the name of freedom of speech, but the question is: To what end? 

Brazil has already introduced the Internet Bill of Rights to balance freedom of expression and the right to privacy and personal data. But is this effective? Just this year, Ireland has refused to go the route of China and monitor social media conversations and restrict free speech. So we come to a crossroads.

Perhaps the answer lies in taking back our internet and building our society. As Rebecca MacKinnon, a blogger and cofounder of Global Voices Online, points out: “The reality is that even in democratic societies we do not have good answers for how you balance the need for security and protection of civil liberties and free speech on our digital networks.”

She goes on to say that social media needs to evolve in a citizencentric manner to hold our governments and the government of “Facebookistan” accountable to public interest. 

“Each and every one has a vital part to play in building the kind of world in which government and technology serves the world’s people, not the other way around,” she concludes.

Serve us and our safety
Social media users in Africa should take a stand and assume responsibility to make governments and social networks serve us and our right to safety.

Terrorism always comes as a big surprise, but standing together in movements like #Bringbackourgirls against Boko Haram in Nigeria, #Jesuischarlie against al-Qaeda in Paris and #Illridewithyou against Islamophobia and the Islamic State in Sydney is the right social media antidote to terrorism.

Keep it together, stand together, for the tweet is more powerful than the bullet.

Donovan White is a social media strategist at Native VML

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