The Disinformation Strategies of Extremist Groups
Extremist and terrorist groups have adapted to the digital world and have cultivated strategies to capture hearts and minds over a screen.
The explosive, world wide growth in the adoption of smartphones and social media has given everyone the chance to be a storyteller and feature in other’s stories; as heroes, as bystanders, and as villains. With the fraught media landscapes in most conflict zones, extremist groups have been able to leverage social media to amplify their message at low cost; it is an intensifying tool with no geographic boundaries. Without access to diplomatic channels, rebel and extremist groups use digital tools to project their voice and communicate to the public.
One of the most quickly evolving facets of extremist group communication is recruitment efforts. This has included outlets such as Telegram, as well as adaptation to mediums like video as high-speed data and video editing tools, which have become vastly more accessible. Telegram is a foundational platform for many extremist groups to plan their attacks, recruit, and spread disinformation. Using different platforms for different purposes is also a common strategy, with some focused on publicity, some on recruitment, some on soliciting financial support, and some on supplying information about police and counter-terrorism activities that would endanger the extremist group.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated border closures threw a spanner in the works of many existing recruitment strategies, particularly those focused on physical recruitment efforts. While the former plan of action for these organisations was to isolate potential recruits from their current communities, make them socially and politically reliant on the group, and eventually convince them to travel overseas to the operating area of the group, travel restrictions have meant that these organisations have had to switch to focus more on establishing overseas terrorist cells.
For those unable to travel, they work on convincing them to recruit others around them or plan terrorist attacks in their country of residence -“Stay, Plan, Attack”. This has in turn made these groups seem increasingly potent; as every successful attempt is published, and failed ones remain largely unknown. In examining ISIS’ digital strategy of recruitment with “Stay, Plan, Attack”, we can see a significant increase in their digital reach and influence, despite the collapse in their ability to hold physical territory. ISIS has been notoriously digital-focused, and their successive military losses have made them more committed to that avenue than ever. They produce high-quality well-produced videos and messages that have made them a household name due to their sophisticated global social media campaigns that convey a “global war and ultimate victory” narrative. After their work caught the attention of mainstream social media sites and began to be removed, they turned to other platforms including Hoop Messenger, Element, Threema and Tam Tam. ISIS’s own media centre, Al-Hayat, uses Telegram as a distribution tool to push their propaganda internationally. Other services used by extremist groups include Chirpwire (favoured by al-Qaeda) and Rocket Chat (used by JNIM).
"Chaos has never been cheaper or easier to create" - The Red Line Episode 60.
Another key tool in the arsenal of extremist groups is bots. Hezbollah is notorious for its use of bots and has trained individuals in Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq to manage online bot campaigns, which have worked to influence politics and spread disinformation. These individuals have received training in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where Hezbollah is based, which includes image and video manipulation training.
Other groups strategise the digital sphere to unconventionally build diplomatic ties. For example in the Sahel, particularly in Mali where the media landscape is especially fraught. In the northern part of the country where extremist groups such as JNIM are located, most journalists are banned from the front lines, and reporting largely comes from the capital Bamako, in the south of the country far from the fighting. This centralisation of journalism in combination with the many journalists who have been kidnapped and ransomed in the region has sanitised the reporting of the situation, resulting in a widespread failure to reflect the complexity of the situation. Much of the reporting focuses on the coups themselves without looking into the reasons behind JNIM’s rise and the associated rise in militarism and disruption of the state.
JNIM’s use of technology and social media has been instrumental to their survival and success. They use these platforms to project their message across the region, in particular through Telegram and Rocket Chat. Again, however, the inherent complexity of JNIM is critical to understanding this aspect of the organisation. The organisation’s coalition structure means that each constituent group has different communications strategies, which focus on different goals and messages in line with the particular nature of that group. JNIM as a whole is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and some of its constituent groups follow the al-Qaeda line closely by promoting messages related to global revolution and international Jihad. On the other hand, other groups within JNIM are more local-focused, and tailor their messages to localised issues instead.
"The organisation’s coalition structure means that each constituent group has different communications strategies, which focus on different goals and messages"
Notably, Ansar Dine’s digital approach significantly differs from that of its counterparts, as their ambition of implementing shari’a law has led them to try to portray themselves as a state, mimicking state communications and interacting with foreign press outlets. Ansar Dine’s leader Iyad Ag Ghaly established a Telegram channel where his organisation could receive questions from regional and international press and provide answers to them, in an attempt to be recognised on the international stage as legitimate power. After the merger to join JNIM, Ansar Dine benefited deeply from being within the coalition as their digital footprint was boosted through support from AQIM and Al-Qaeda who command significant audiences of their own. To combat the strength of these groups, western policy-makers need to analyse their online communication and determine the extent to which their claims of strength or influence are reflected in reality. Social media as a tool not only gives extremist organisations strong public outreach and a way to frame narratives, but also the ability to mislead international actors about the reality of the situation on the ground. The potential power and influence that can be created with social media are infinite, but the correlation between legitimate authority and influence is finite.
These groups emerge from nowhere; they are born in communities and now grow up on screens. Military forces can be defeated, but the ideology continues to thrive. This is not just the case for jihadist groups, but also for far-right and left extremists. What is certain is that as we continue down the path of digital diplomacy, screens are becoming ever more critical in capturing hearts and minds.
Written by Perri Grace
Edited by Owen Swift