The question of ‘Why is Daesh not shut out of the internet?’ seems so unpretentious, but the answer to such a question is certainly problematic and sophisticated.
In the US and Europe, openly and behind closed doors in the corridors of policy-making bodies, discussions warn against the use of social media networks by the so called ‘Islamic State’ (known in Arabic by the name Daesh) as an effective tool for recruiting fighters, to spread propaganda material and to gain support.
It is no secret that Daesh has succeeded so far in harnessing various Internet platforms to spread its propaganda messages around the world. It has become a reality partly through its effective YouTube videos, some of them even referred to as official sources by the mainstream international news media.
In the West free speech is sacred. Hence the argument in the US for instance has been whether to consider censorship of Daesh’s media platforms a contradiction of the basic rights of free speech enshrined in the country’s constitution. Contrary to what may be expected, many in the USA argue that the best method to fight hate speech is not to censor it but to widen the debate around it and to increase the voices of those who can counteract it.
However, this may make sense if the rule is applied fairly all across the board. Recently, for instance, Facebook has started disabling and removing pages belonging to Palestinian human rights activists who reveal the day-to-day atrocities that Palestinian people face under the Israeli occupation. Reports about images and caricature deletion, as well as the total removal of Facebook pages have become the norm. Removal of material, many activists argue, comes with no warning and simply because it is criticizing the occupation.
One should highlight that there has to be a distinction between inciting hatred in the ways that Daesh and other extremist rightwing groups in Europe and USA are now engaged in, and the basic right to report corruption, brutality and atrocities that Palestinians face daily under the Israeli settlers and the occupation army. Which one of these deserves censorship the most? It seems that currently images of Muslims as the dangerous extremist are being allowed, while the images of Muslims and other Arabs in Palestine, at least as victims, are being censored.
The overall result is not hard to predict- Muslims, in particular Arabs, again become seen predominantly as the aggressor, and any sympathy there is for Muslims is dissipated. Another result is that the level of polarization of society and extremism could continue to increase, provoking more attacks against innocent people by Daesh affiliates (including many Muslims), and an increase in the knock-on Islamophobic crimes against peaceful mainstream Muslim minorities in countries worldwide. Injustices against Palestinians in Israel can also escalate, as they usually do whenever the Israeli oppressions escape the notice of the Western public. This is a predictable process of deflecting attention from crimes, demon creating and hyping up, and then demonization of the whole group (who are actually largely the victims). The aim seems to be to manipulate the public to be in favour of the aggressive measures being already taken by states against Muslims in general, in particular Arabs, and to reduce the help given to the mostly innocent victims of that aggression- the mostly Muslim and Arab refugees.
It is a widely held view that the expanding media environment and the penetration of Social Media networks globally is affecting young people’s identity construction and the various expressions of who they are and their affiliations. The multiplicity of digital spaces allows the youth nowadays to easily commute between multiple platforms and consume a multitude of media content in a manner not experienced before.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and lately WhatsApp and Telegram seem the most prominent tools for virtual communication amongst individuals and groups in various parts of the world. These types of varied services which involve information exchange through image, video, sound and text have created new experiences for communication and data sharing. Also such tools have helped users to bypass the limitations of space and time as well as constraints of gender, culture and tradition.
Online affiliation to an extremist organisation such Daesh, has therefore become easy. Dangerous propaganda material has never been so easily accessible. No wonder then that such extremist groups capitalise on these virtual platforms for recruitment and outreach to a world populace. Daesh and other extremist groups work in a vacuum and yet they are well-equipped with expertise in their media war. In fact they have realized that social media is a tool as powerful as the rockets and tanks.
One wonders then why the US dispatches aircrafts to fight Daesh in Iraq and Syria while internet companies in the West provide Internet hosting facilities for such terrorist groups, clearly inciting violence against innocent people?
Various scenarios could be suggested for the provision of Internet services by Western companies. The German newspaper Der Spiegel suggested that European companies provide internet services via satellite and that there are two possibilities among many for this. The first is that they are interested in providing their services for pure profit-making regardless of the content and the provider. The second is that Internet companies are aware of all content and its users, and therefore they are in the business of collecting that data and sharing it with intelligence services.
Nevertheless, how is it that ‘Anonymous’ can so quickly hack and stop the Twitter accounts of Daesh supporters, but intelligence agencies worldwide seem to be acting so slowly and ineffectively?
While this debate goes on, extremist groups continue pumping propaganda material onto the internet and competently harness social media networks for their benefit. ‘A’amaq’ news agency and ‘Agencies’ (two of Daesh’s news agencies on the web) in addition to Dabiq magazine have become widely referred to in the international news about the activities of Daesh and it message. Hundreds of videos of beheading captives or bearing other forms of barbaric acts to innocent people do still exist on YouTube. Recently, Daesh broadcasted, through its Telegram account, a detailed description of the Paris attacks in November 2015 and paraded its members involved in the atrocities. As of today (25 January 2016), there exist 4.570 million videos on YouTube produced by ISIS or about ISIS, and some have had over 3 million views, as any sensationalist reports would have.
This begs a pressing question about the effectiveness of monitoring harmful and offensive material on the internet. Also whose agenda does it serve to keep millions of propaganda videos available to the public, including children and youth?
Isn’t it time that the Daesh propaganda be shut out of the internet?
Dr Noureddine Miladi is a University Professor of Media and Communication.