The online media platforms of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) blend graphic audiovisual content with religious writings to sanction and justify violent terrorist attacks throughout the world. ISIS has utilized propaganda to its advantage, not only to bolster its expansion in Iraq and Syria but also to recruit followers and disseminate the group’s ideology worldwide.
In the past few years, jihadist groups like ISIS initially relied on open Application Programming Interface (API) platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr to distribute such content and help them recruit worldwide. In response, there have been increasing efforts by leading tech companies—and vocal calls by security professionals—to “de-platform” ISIS, meaning to reduce and ideally eliminate its presence on technology platforms. Recent attempts to deprive ISIS of its virtual foothold on two particular platforms teach us that, while de-platforming may never yield a “mission accomplished” moment, given that there are always new platforms for ISIS to use, depriving the group of its virtual safe haven on any particular platform nonetheless yields key benefits.
As modern communications platforms have evolved, the growing choice of Internet-enabled platforms has provided abundant avenues for militant jihadist groups to proliferate online while maintaining their own operational security. In response, leading tech companies have become more mature in their efforts to deprive groups like ISIS of their ability to reach wide audiences through these platforms. And, after the April 2019 Christchurch Call initiative spearheaded by Western governments (though not the U.S. government), major tech companies expanded their takedown policies, with the explicit goal of “eliminat[ing] terrorist and violent extremist content online.”
While Twitter and Facebook saw early adoption by ISIS propagandists and sympathizers in their so-called “virtual caliphate,” account closures and policing of content became more aggressive, leading many ISIS online recruits to move to Telegram. That became ISIS’s preferred platform for almost four years.
Pavel Durov, the co-founder of Telegram, resisted considerable pressure to allow governments’ access to the platform for counterterrorism purposes. He defiantly refused even after a Russian court banned Telegram in April 2018. Durov’s only explanation for his refusal to comply with government requests was posted to his own personal Telegram account: “The power that local governments have over IT is based on money. At any given moment, a government can crash their stocks by threatening to block revenue streams from its markets and force these companies to do strange things. At Telegram we have the luxury of not caring about revenue streams or sales. Privacy is not for sale and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.”
It seems that Durov finally relented. The Nov. 20, 2019, takedown by Telegram of most of the ISIS channels disseminating the group’s propaganda put the online ISIS community in a panic and, for researchers, once again raised the question about the efficacy of de-platforming.
While researchers (this one included) lamented their loss of access to conversations that could inform understandings of ISIS and its followers, ISIS hardly stayed silent for long. ISIS quickly began to reemerge on alternative platforms such as Rocket Chat and TamTam. Some pundits immediately proclaimed TamTam the new stable platform for ISIS. But, while that might have been true for a brief moment, it didn’t last long. In less than a week, TamTam deleted many of the channels and even shuttered the chat rooms. Furthermore, once these had been closed, one could no longer access the archived materials as one could on Telegram. Within the same brief period, ISIS promoted another platform called Hoop Messenger as the group’s new platform of choice. Hoop responded even more quickly, deleting within 48 hours all of ISIS’s semi-official news networks and chats.
So: Does de-platforming work? The recent interventions have certainly caused panic and disarray among online ISIS networks that now have been struggling for two weeks to locate a stable platform, and they continue to struggle. The quest to find a platform that will not dislodge their accounts and conversations has meant that there are no stable channels or networks for them to rely on.
In their initial move to TamTam, networks were occupied by finding a new home instead of monitoring accounts and instituting the usual security protocols to ensure against lurkers and security agencies. My TamTam account, for example, displayed the names of every analyst conducting research on ISIS social media because I had accidentally allowed the platform to access my contacts (although our security protocols require using burner devices). The most savvy analysts (such as Raphael Gluck) had preemptively joined TamTam back in April 2018 when ISIS first floated the idea of finding a new platform, apparently recognizing that Telegram was overflowing with people watching and reporting on their activities. The same monitors were racing to add TamTam and Rocket Chat to their social media repertoires.
Now TamTam has become inhospitable after less than a week. ISIS supporters are disseminating links to Hoop Messenger and Rocket Chat, and even revisiting the possibility of using Telegram.
All told, the future for ISIS online is in flux, and any predictions might not remain valid for even a week. But the disarray evident online means that, if the terrorists are busy evading detection, they have less bandwidth to plan deadly recruitment and attacks. In this respect, de-platforming causes a type of disruption similar to that caused by targeted strikes against terrorist leaders: it forces them to spend time and energy hiding rather than carrying out attacks. As Dan Byman described the effect, “An often-neglected impact of killing terrorist leaders is on what they and their group do not do. When a campaign against lieutenants is in full-gear, they must spend much of their time in hiding or moving from place to place.”
That appears to describe the situation for ISIS online once the group’s presence on any particular platform is contested. Not only is there no “safe haven” for ISIS online, but also the platform-shifting process occupies ISIS’s ranks and can contribute to their inability to plan attacks, maintain their audience, and ensure operational security. With every shift to a new platform, the result is fewer followers and a diminished impact. In many ways, the coordinated de-platforming has accomplished the goal of reducing the efficacy of ISIS propaganda by weakening the once-powerful administrators of the channels.
One caveat, though: this death by a thousand cuts might not be equally effective for every terrorist group. We have seen the demise of 8Chan, only to see it effectively replaced by Gab. There are a host of Russian-owned social media platforms that have been slow to act against ISIS but have refused to enforce their own terms of service — notably, Telegram has refused to act against Neo Nazi and Extreme Right Wing channels in the same way they have against ISIS. While their terms of service state that content will not, “promote violence on publically [sic] viewable Telegram channels, bots, etc.,” the platform continues to offer content banned from other platforms, such as videos captured and live streamed by white supremacist terrorists Brenton Tarrant (Christchurch, New Zealand) and Stephan Balliet (Halle, Germany) during their murderous rampages earlier this year.
While de-platforming has certainly impacted ISIS negatively, the same cannot be said for the right-wing extremists who have managed to shift platforms and continue to pose the greatest threat to Americans on U.S. soil, in part because of the mainstreaming of aspects of their ideology and messaging. Social media companies must coordinate their actions and treat all terrorist groups, whether designated officially or not, as equally bad actors, amid the continuing drive to make social media safe again.
(The author’s research is supported in part by the Office of Naval Research “Documenting the Virtual Caliphate” #N00014-16-1-3174. All opinions are exclusively those of the authors and do not represent the Department of Defense or the Navy.)