This article was first published on The Conversation on 13 May 2015. Robyn Torok is a PhD candidate in ECU’s Security Research Institute.
Terrorist groups are increasingly using the internet to attract new recruits, which is why the federal government has announced extra funding in the federal budget to combat terrorist propaganda online.
Prime Minister Tony Abbot said:
This [the extra funding] will make it harder for terrorist groups to attract vulnerable Australians, particularly young Australians, through the internet and social media.
The recent case of the Melbourne teenager arrested over an alleged bomb threat came to light because of concern over some posts on his Facebook account. Investigators are looking to see if he was radicalised or recruited online, with the acting chief commissioner of Victoria Police, Tim Cartwright, saying:
Overseas recruiters and, more broadly, social media are a real challenge for us, a challenge we haven’t seen in the past.
The internet provides people the opportunities to radicalise from across the world. It is a real concern for us.
Online recruitment into terror
Recruitment is a complex process and involves individuals engaging with a large amount of online propaganda material. Propaganda material is presented on a variety of social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook which are often linked into YouTube videos.
In addition, recruitment also involves joining networks of radicalised individuals online by becoming “friends” with them or following trending issues. Once an individual becomes part of these networks they are then exposed to certain marketing techniques such as “future pacing”.
This is a technique whereby a seller speaks to a potential buyer using language that suggests that they have already accepted a product.
Sellers use language such as “when you use this…” or “you will notice the difference…” that imply the idea that the product is already purchased in order to create this acceptance in a buyers mind. The aim here is to create a connection between the buyer and the product. While this is not a guarantee of success, it does increase the probability of a sale.
My research has found that in online interactions, this pattern of language that uses future pacing is also present when extremists are seeking to recruit an individual.
This is done in a number of ways including challenging those with existing religious beliefs, such as Catholicism, about the oneness of God and the abhorrence of idols.
From innocent foundations, radicals use future pacing to plant the seed about actively making a difference about injustices to fellow Muslims. The goal is to create a belief in an individual that they need to be active in their faith which can then be subsequently directed towards violent acts.
Perhaps the most significant form of future pacing is for Australians to carry out an act of martyrdom. Planting a seed in a person’s mind that encourages them to give their life for their faith. Key statements are planted both early and often, and significantly before a person is recruited to radical discourse.
Locating profiles, pages, links on Facebook and YouTube are done easily by using key terms that ISIS or radicals use, or by following profile trending of accounts that adopt a future pacing mentality. Since information is very accessible, that’s part of the problem in preventing new people being recruited and radicalised.
Future pacing is just one technique that is part of a package of strategies with one clear objective: to create change.
Terrorist groups such as ISIS use future pacing to try to create a new reality or acceptance of their “product”, which is a set of ideas or ideologies.
The most significant way that ISIS has been able to do this is to create the extremist goal of an Islamic Caliphate. In other words, “living the dream” of many extremist Muslims in creating and maintaining a “pure” Islamic state under sharia law.
Future pacing has also been applied to entice women to be brides.
More than ‘come join our cause’
In order for an individual to make a life-altering decision to leave Australia and join a group such as ISIS, there has to be a major change in their mental frameworks and belief systems.
These changes are not easy to achieve and need an individual to be willing to be immersed in these ideas for an extended period of time. This will vary greatly depending on a multitude of psychological factors as well as the level of social isolation. Transformation is easier to achieve if an individual is more socially isolated especially from competing ideologies.
Social media is a powerful communication tool and for most of us this involves family, friends and some like-minded individuals around the world.
But at-risk individuals have many extremists as “friends” on social media. While ISIS posts many propaganda videos on YouTube that can be easily found, it is platforms such as Facebook that can be used to personally engage with and recruit vulnerable individuals as well as help spread their propaganda.
Extremists often have multiple accounts on Facebook operating simultaneously. Even though some accounts may be shut down, such as one selling ISIS merchandise, backup accounts are used and further accounts and pages created.
Disrupting the flow
While terrorists’ accounts can be monitored, and at times may be left to operate for intelligence gathering, there are given accounts that will be deactivated to disrupt the flow of information and recruiting strategies used by terrorists.
Moderate Muslim communities also involve themselves with counter-discourse when challenging extremists views online and have access to government help to do this. Islamic leaders have been leading the way in challenging extremism despite opposition from some extremist elements that target youth.
Authorities are having some success with cases of individuals being stopped at airports and having their passports cancelled. Two teenagers were intercepted at Sydney airport who were heading for Syria without even their parents knowledge of their plans.
But given the vast nature of social media, many still slip through with about 100 Australians – and an estimated 20,000 people from other countries – believed to be fighting with ISIS.
The first step in addressing this problem is to gain a better understanding of the online systems and processes used in terrorist recruitment and this is an ongoing process.
My research indicates that recruiters are very skilled at targeting and infiltrating certain types of Facebook pages – including anti government, religious and education forums – as well as exploiting socially isolated and marginalised individuals.
The latest funding from the government is absolutely imperative and welcomed to deal with terrorist propaganda, misinformation, lies and recruitment strategies.
It is also important that parents know who their children are associating with on social media. What type of networks are they creating? What types of “friends” are they connecting with or trending topics they are following? What type of group pages are they consuming?
Perhaps the most significant indicator is the individuals social circle. Are they isolated and spend most of their time online? Do they tend to only associate with others who have similar radical views?
If people see any warning signs then the place to seek help from is community de-radicalisation programs. If intervention is not possible, it might be time to call the National Security Hotline on 1800 1234 00.
Robyn Torok is a Researcher on social media, extremist discourse, terrorist recruitment, on-line radicalisation and propaganda at ECU’s Security Research Institute.