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Exposing Terror, Building Resilience: Harnessing Citizen Journalists and Social Media to Confront Terrorism

Exposing Terror, Building Resilience: Harnessing Citizen Journalists and Social Media to Confront Terrorism
29th September 2020 Omar Mohammed
Omar Mohammed
In Insights

“I can’t report”; “I don’t trust the security forces to report”; “I have reported before, but he–the terrorist–was released”; “reporting terrorists to the security forces cost me my brother and I had to flee”. These are some of the responses I received from Mosul residents when I asked why they don’t report terrorism to the security forces.

Information is the lifeblood of terrorists. As a resident of Mosul during Islamic State’s occupation, I saw first-hand how important the group’s intelligence networks were not just to its success and survival, but also to creating the conditions that deterred citizens from reporting the crimes committed by Islamic State (IS) members. Given the brutality with which Islamic State ruled Mosul, I assumed that there would be widespread reporting of the group’s crimes and an established process of judicial reckoning. But Islamic State’s chain of intelligence was built over many years in Mosul on two main elements: 1) the security forces’ corruption, and 2) locals’  fear of being killed as a result of that corruption, that a jailed terrorist could bribe his way to freedom and once out exercise retribution on his accusers. Both elements broke public faith and created a deep chasm between the state and the people, which IS persistently and strategically exacerbated. This piece looks at the culture of citizen journalism in Iraq.

Investigative journalism carries a social stigma that has a decades-long history in Iraq since the Ba’th regime of Saddam Hussein and has negatively impacted cultural perceptions of citizen journalists. While this stigma may originally have been a construct of an authoritarian regime seeking to silence the voice of everyday Iraqis, its impact has been long-lasting and was evident prior to, during, and even after Islamic State’s most recent occupation of Mosul. Social media platforms can play a central role in breaking down the stigma associated with citizen journalism by encouraging a culture that normalises open access to information and debate, and builds an online space for citizen journalism. Social media platforms and the cultural shifts they encourage will help journalism to be seen as a fundamental means of informing the people of Mosul and well beyond. It will help reclaim the legitimacy of the act of journalism that has been suffering for decades under the legacy of different regimes in Iraq, and most recently from the negative impact of terrorism.

Redefining social media and developing its concepts in post-conflict areas as an effective tool of reliable and accurate information would contribute immensely to exposing the narrative espoused by Islamic State and other terrorist groups. When these platforms turn into an arena for expressing opinion and transferring information from citizens as living witnesses to the world, social media users and citizen journalists are able to amplify their influence on their surroundings and break Islamic State’s monopoly on social media. There are successful models for producing not only anti-terrorism narratives, but also for motivating society to play a role in identifying, limiting, and neutralising terrorism and political violence offline and across social media platforms. Such efforts are crucial for building overall societal resilience to violent extremism. Thus, it is essential to establish media education and media literacy programs for citizen journalists that train their ability and develop their skills to report accurately on their surroundings without fear. When it comes to reporting terrorism in their localities, it is citizens who are on the front lines. Acknowledging and facilitating community-based approaches would limit terrorist groups’ ability to monopolise public opinion. Although many PVE/CVE programs were established to counter terrorism, they failed to train citizen journalists to produce media across themes that would enable them to spur social development and change, which in turn help to prevent terrorism over the long-term.

Violence aims to modify behaviour through coercion. Propaganda aims to do the same through persuasion. Terrorism is a combination of the two, using demonstrative public violence as an instrument of psychological warfare, ‘advertising,’ as it were, an armed non-state group’s capability to do harm and to destroy. The lack of local eyewitness reporting remains a challenge to terrorism studies, where terrorists fill the gap in information with their own narrative and ‘reporting’ of events. For example, the BBC recently reported on a study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) that tracked 288 IS-linked Facebook accounts over a three-month period. Researchers found these accounts’ material generated tens of thousands of views, evading Facebook’s automated and manual detection, before being removed. The study also found networks of IS supporters plotting, preparing, and launching ‘raids’ on other Facebook pages, including those belonging to U.S. military and political leaders, as well as moving into other platforms like WhatsApp and SoundCloud.

The importance of local counter narratives

To counter the threat of such terrorist propaganda, especially across social media, local citizen journalists, often overlooked by terrorism experts, are essential. They understand the local context needed to defeat terrorism in places like Iraq and Syria. They create local counter narratives that has an important role relative to Western reporting about terrorism, which groups like IS use in their rhetoric to feed into their perceived conflict between “Islam and the West”.

Cases from the Middle East and South Asia are discussed here to illustrate the critical role of locally based counter-narratives. Such local media platforms can serve as prototypes for the future development of locally based and real-time efforts to counter terrorism by leveraging in-depth knowledge of the local context that provide first-hand accounts for scholars to better understand terrorism in war-torn areas like Iraq and Syria.

MOSUL EYE

Note: The author hesitates to use Mosul Eye as an example in this paper to avoid self-promotion, however, it is cited here for academic analysis only.

Mosul Eye was one of the main sources for the outside world to see what life was like inside Mosul under Islamic State occupation. For almost two years, the blog secretly documented life in the city, conversations with people on the streets (including shopkeepers and even Islamic State terrorists), as well as public executions and everyday violence. It informed the world of how extremism was changing the face of Mosul, writing its present, erasing its past, and putting at risk the future of all its inhabitants. Mosul Eye, which was run by an historian (the author), did not only seek to play a role in counter-terrorism efforts, but also to provide real-time information from inside the besieged city of Mosul. Mosul Eye soon became the sole source of information for the world, enabling international media as well as city residents to simultaneously understand what was happening. The blog also established short and long-term methods of countering and preventing terrorism, highlighting the importance of the local context and citizen journalism.

MYANMAR

In Myanmar, anti-Muslim harassment and violence has been increasing across social media platforms. Local and regional terrorist groups use such anti-Muslim hate speech and incitement as a narrative tool in their own messaging to recruit people and spread more hate.

In the wake of rising anti-Muslim harassment and violence, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) established a two-year anti-hate speech project to target such content on social media. This project, led by local journalists, helped to expose Islamophobia in Myanmar and prevent further killing by observing, documenting and reporting the increasing incidence of hate speech. Led by local journalists, the investigation helped to expose the “Muslim Free” campaign (a term used by the Anti-Muslim movement in Maynmar) for what it was: a movement meant to prohibit Muslims from owning property in the country and even staying in hotels. Signs were posted at riverboat stations denying Muslims access. When the authorities were asked if they knew who had put the signs up and why they weren’t being removed, there was never a satisfactory answer. IWPR also found photos of these signs on Facebook being shared and applauded by users who urged their own communities to follow suit. Incendiary comments and ethnic slurs were commonplace. Muslims were described as dogs and vermin who had no place in the country and were threatening the state’s very existence.

With this project, IWPR was also able to show the world what was happening in the country. This project highlights the importance of providing citizen journalists with more training to enhance their skills to identify and prevent the manipulation of social media platforms by extremist movements.

Iraq: “The Big Daddy Show”

The author conducted an interview on 5 July 2020 with Ridha Al Shammari the producer of the Big Daddy Show, a consultant with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. The Big Daddy Show is a cartoon created by activists who fight Islamic State’s ideology with humour.  Not to be confused with “Baghdadi” (i.e. Islamic State’s self-proclaimed leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi), the videos are shot in Arabic with English subtitles and feature all of the “main characters” of the “Caliphate.” Viewers need a good dose of humour, however, to be able to laugh along with these cartoons, which refer to a harsh reality. With certain episodes surpassing over 1 million views,  The Big Daddy Show” is determined to use social media turns-of-phrase to speak to young people who are tempted by radicalisation.

Risks and challenges

The above-examined examples give us an opportunity to understand the importance of the local context in reporting terrorism. Most of the international coverage, regardless of foreign correspondents’ quality, lacks first-hand reporting and a wider understanding of terrorism activities as they happen. When Islamic State occupied Mosul in 2014, most international media did not only overlook the local context of the events that occurred in Mosul, but also misperceived and misinterpreted these events, possibly playing a further negative role by giving the group free media coverage. 

However, there are dangers in this type of local citizen journalism, specifically the security risks posed to local activists. The Committee to Protect Journalists records 189 journalists killed in Iraq from 2003 to 2020, with 111 murdered. Activists and civil society actors have been targeted, kidnapped, disappeared, and killed. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recorded three journalists attacked and killed in January 2020 alone with another attempt, the open firing on of TV presenter Ashteaq Adel in Baghdad that narrowly missed killing her. Local journalists need further training to mitigate the security risks inherent within their work in countries like Iraq ranked 162 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

Locally based counter-terrorism initiatives are proven to have more influence and effectiveness in fighting terrorism. They have the power to break the hold of Islamic State over the historical and religious narrative, which can play a significant role in the long-term fight against terrorism. When it comes to immediate threats, locally based social media outlets can provide real-time information with easily geolocated targets as well as the visual materials that can help understand the movement of terrorism to improve the prevention strategy.

Omar Mohammed, a historian, is a native of Mosul and the founder of Mosul Eye. He is currently teaching cultural heritage diplomacy and Middle East history at Sciences Po in France. He is also a research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.