July 4, 2016 6:01 pm
Updated: July 4, 2016 9:44 pm

Despite recent attacks, ISIS still losing social media war

WATCH: The battle against the so-called Islamic State has been shifting into a cyber-war. Facebook and Twitter are getting better at shutting down accounts that are being used to spread propaganda. But, is that enough? Mike Le Couteur reports.

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It was a deadly week for those commemorating the so-called Islamic State’s (ISIS) second anniversary. In four separate attacks, first in Yemen, then Turkey, Bangladesh and Iraq, ISIS supporters and affiliated fighters succeeded in killing over 300 people – many of them women and children.

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And while these types of attacks are not new – Brussels, Paris, San Bernardino, and perhaps even Orlando, were all either inspired or coordinated by ISIS – the frequency of recent attacks has some security analysts suggesting that losses on the ground for ISIS have caused the terror organization to change it’s online strategy – from recruiting supporters to join in the fight against Western forces in Iraq and Syria, to encouraging would-be jihadists to instead stay home and orchestrate terrorist attacks in their respective nations.

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“It’s this message directed to supporters in the West,” said Laith Alkhouri, director of Middle East and North Africa research at Flashpoint, an organization specializing in online counterterrorism activities.

“That we [ISIS] are able to strike you in your heart, in your homeland, and our supporters there should understand that.”

This shift in strategy comes at a time when ISIS is losing ground, not only on the battlefield, but in the online arena as well.

Alberto Fernandez, a former U.S. State Department official and vice-president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, believes ISIS’s most prolific days of spreading online propaganda are in the past.

“Their presence online is more contested,” said Fernandez, describing what he believes is the slow decline of ISIS’s online capabilities. “It used to be that the best thing they liked to crow about was military victory – the fall of cities, the taking of loot and equipment, the massacre of captured soldiers – they don’t have that anymore.”

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Despite being pushed from many mainstream social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, ISIS still maintains relatively robust lines of communication between itself and its online supporters, admits Fernandez.

“ISIS has turned to other, more secure platforms such as Telegram to spread its messaging,” Fernandez said.

Telegram and similar video-sharing applications have been used very successfully by ISIS to evade detection and make it difficult for authorities to delete and remove content.

Unlike YouTube and other video-sharing platforms, said Fernandez, Telegram is encrypted – allowing ISIS and its supporters to safely and securely transmit content between authorized users only, similar to how Blackberry’s PIN-to-PIN messaging works.

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Still, mainstream social media losses for ISIS have been significant.

“There has been a coordinated ‘hacktivist’ campaign, an anti-ISIS hacktivist campaign,” Alkhouri said. The objectives of which are to degrade the organization’s presence online by actively attacking pro-ISIS social media accounts, and by informing Twitter and other social platforms of users believed to be involved in the spread of extremist materials.

As successful as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook might be at riding the internet of extremist content, Western governments and intelligence agencies have fallen behind when it comes to countering ISIS’s efforts online, according to Scott Neil, a former Green Beret and counterterrorism expert.

“You have some of the greatest military minds, military powers, national intelligence agencies from around the world,” said Neil. “And they’re being outpaced on the internet by a rogue band of loosely-formed, nefarious criminals that use barbarism to perpetuate an ideology that’s 1,400 years old.”

Neil is not alone in this assessment. Fernandez and Alkhouri both agree that Western governments have been largely unsuccessful in countering extremist ideology online. And that any gains in pushing ISIS from the centre of the online universe have come primarily as a result of private enterprise and what Fernandez describes as “good business sense.”

“Facebook has been very aggressive in challenging the extremists in its space,” said Fernandez. “But they’ve all improved, they’ve all done more, they’re more aggressive, they’re taking stuff down, so the trend is very positive.”

© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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