After the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria’s Borno State in 2014, the then-leader of Boko Haram took to social media to celebrate the act and to post grainy video of the hostages.
Since then, Boko Haram and other terrorist groups across West Africa have expanded their use of social media channels, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, along with Telegram and WhatsApp, to spread propaganda, recruit new members, incite attacks, and plan.
According to Bulama Bukarti, a senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, social media helps provide Boko Haram and groups like it with the publicity they crave.
“Online platforms can provide terrorists with communication, coordination and recruitment tools at relatively low costs,” wrote János Besenyő in a study published in the journal Insights Into Regional Development.
Although Africa still lags some parts of the world in internet infrastructure, it is catching up rapidly. Between 2000 and 2022, in Nigeria alone, the number of internet users more than doubled to an estimated 109 million, roughly half the population. That’s the largest online community in Africa, according to the website Statistica.
Terrorists are riding that rapidly expanding wave, challenging internet companies and governmental efforts to counter their messaging without disrupting legitimate internet use.
At the same time, terrorists’ social media posts have become more sophisticated as they have deepened ties with larger organizations such as the Islamic State group or al-Qaida. The grainy, handheld video of the Chibok girls has been replaced with smoothly edited videos of beheadings complete with theme music.
Responding to international pressure, major social media companies such as Meta, which owns Facebook and WhatsApp, and Twitter have responded by monitoring sites for terrorist messaging and taking them down when they find it.
In response to pressure from social media companies, terror groups have sought to cloak their posts in the cover of public relations or news. They also post material in local languages or dialects, exploiting social media companies’ lack of native speakers able to intercept and shut down terrorist posts in a timely manner.
Researchers from the United Nations-sponsored organization Tech Against Terrorism (TAT) compared the process to a game of “whack-a-mole,” but said the effort is worth it in the long run.
“Even if terrorist groups manage to re-establish their websites, disruptive pressure is in itself worthwhile as it might force terrorist groups to re-evaluate their presence on surface web platforms,” TAT wrote in a July report.
TAT has created a list of recommendations to help internet companies curb terrorist activity online. The list includes steps such as removing suspected terrorist-owned websites (TOWs) from search results or redirecting searches to sites that counter the extremist messaging. They also recommend warning hosting companies against providing space for suspected TOWs or removing TOWs entirely when they are found online.
As they face more scrutiny from major social media companies, terrorist groups also are shifting their activity to smaller channels or to encrypted venues such as Telegram, where the operators are less able to detect and remove them.
“If it’s online somewhere, whether on a smaller platform, it will still be accessible and still be able to be used as terrorists want it to be used,” TAT senior researcher Anne Craanen told the Behind the Spine podcast. TAT monitors terrorist activity online every day, Craanen said.
Telegram is becoming the new front line for terrorist groups in Africa, Bukarti told the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
TAT and other groups studying terrorists’ online activity say African governments need to be more proactive and not simply leave the issue to be handled by social media companies.
“African governments must engage with the tech sector to broaden their knowledge of the context in which terrorist organizations thrive,” Karen Allen, a South Africa-based ISS contributor, recently wrote.
However, in their effort to counter terrorists online, African nations must take a surgical approach, according to Allen.
“They should devise rapid responses that adhere to human rights principles — rather than total internet shutdowns, which deprive citizens of their right to freedom of expression,” she wrote.
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