Our understanding of how the Internet has fostered terrorist activism is conditioned by an important bias that affects the robustness of our conclusions: the assumption that the Internet offers a series of traits that intrinsically aid the attainment of the goals of terrorist groups. Such analysis makes the mistake of describing the Internet as it is at present and extrapolating the traits to past and future contexts. In fact, since its inception, the Internet has mutated constantly as a result of different technological innovations and the way in which new uses have been internalised by society.
A large number of works explore the historical evolution of terrorist activism on the Internet as if the different generations of radicals had been operating with the same kind of tool. In reality, for much of its existence the technology has lacked functions – ease of use, connectivity, adding individuals, and personalisation – that are an integral part of present-day social media. These functions are often considered to be a basic feature of the Internet but are, in fact, relatively new within its short lifespan.
The different configurations of the Internet lead to different types of mobilisation of radicalised individuals. The reason why an individual engages in Internet activities considered terrorist offences cannot be explained solely by a progression in their radicalisation from the purely cognitive level to active involvement. A key role in the decision is played by the type of barriers to entry that the individual must overcome in order to participate in terrorist activity on the Internet. Some virtual tools propitiate terrorist activity on the Internet whereas others, due to their characteristics, deter a majority of potentially interested parties from using them to channel their commitment to jihadist terrorism.
In a recently published article, I classified the different Internet spaces featuring terrorist content under the headings of ‘hard platforms’ and ‘friendly platforms’. This differentiation enables us to identify how the barriers to entry to activism have evolved during the last two decades and how this evolution has produced different levels of terrorist mobilisation in cyberspace. Hard platforms (like Internet forums, Tor hidden services, etc.) require considerable user effort in terms of learning and location of information resources, as well as membership of a contacts’ network offering access to an existing community. Friendly platforms (like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) include all tools designed with ease of use and adoption by Internet users in mind. Their intuitive architecture means they can be used without any specific learning and they are designed to facilitate a simple form of interconnection with other users.
Terrorist activities on platforms with high barriers to entry are generally undertaken by individuals with hierarchical ties to formal organisations or with a track record in the subculture of jihadist militancy that enabled them to join radical Internet communities based on trust and credibility. This form of ‘hard’ activism is only sporadically present in overall jihadist activities.
On the other hand, the vast majority of terrorist activism on the Internet has been carried out through a ‘soft’ activism which is channeled in the vast majority of cases via ‘friendly platforms’. In this category, most of them lack any hierarchical ties to formal organisations. They are men and women who have decided to materialise their commitment to the jihadist cause through their own initiatives to spread the propaganda of jihadist organisations and contribute to the radicalisation of other individuals on the Internet. This low-intensity commitment is facilitated by the design of the platforms and services, which make propaganda activities swift, simple and compatible with work and family commitments.
One could argue that the ‘Islamic State effect’ has been the decisive element in inspiring the virtual mobilisation of such individuals. However, it is worth noting that this growth in online activism corresponds in time with the high point of the penetration and use of the main Internet social networks. The bulk of the activists who used ‘friendly’ platforms did not do so because they were following a specific terrorist directive to ‘invade’ social networks on Internet. Rather, in most cases they merely realigned their use of the platforms. Parallel to their radicalisation, their user profiles on social media changed. Content relating to trivial and personal matters was replaced by content focused primarily on conflicts involving Muslims (at all times reflecting the perspective of the terrorist organisations). Radicalised Internet users began to purge their networks of contacts to remove friends and family now viewed as enemies or sinful influences and replaced them with new contacts who shared the same world vision of the jihadist struggle.
A very noticeable decrease in police operations against this form of terrorism is seen as of 2018. Once again, the ‘Islamic State effect’ appears to be a plausible hypothesis in accounting for this reduced level of activism. Just as the image of an organisation that enjoyed constant successes in its territorial expansion and attacks against its enemies spurred virtual activism by supporters, the collapse of the so-called caliphate project and slump in communications were reflected in a lower degree of cyber-activist mobilisation.
However, if barriers to entry to terrorist activism on the Internet are used as an explanatory variable, we gain an additional perspective that helps explain the aforementioned marked decline. The period in question saw a phenomenon that eventually ‘disrupted’ the use of hitherto ‘friendly’ platforms by terrorists. The main Internet social networks had, for a long time, shown a lukewarm commitment to or negligible effectiveness in taking down and preventing terrorist content on their platforms.
However, since late 2017 the main services have adopted a much more proactive attitude and have increased their human and material resources for tackling ‘Illegal Hate Speech’, while also incorporating automated mechanisms based on artificial intelligence to monitor and remove content. This new paradigm turned the very spaces which, just years earlier, had allowed channels for distributing radical content to flourish and remain active, with tens of thousands of followers, into hostile territory.
For the first time, the challenge faced by jihadism was not so much how to harness the potential of the leading Internet social networks but simply to ensure a presence on them. Jihadist propaganda began to feature encouragement to supporters not to falter in the arduous task of preserving the jihadist message in spaces such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Although alternative sites exist where content of this type can be shared with fewer problems, they tend to only attract individuals who are already supporters of the cause. Hence, the jihadist movement runs the risk of becoming a marginal group out of touch with the great mass of Muslim users on the main social networks.
Despite the aforementioned calls to persevere, the ‘hardening’ of the major platforms has dissuaded a sizeable number of potential Internet activists who are unwilling – or lack the required skills – to demonstrate their commitment in spaces requiring a high time and effort cost. Jihadist activism on the Internet has been rendered more difficult not just on ‘friendly’ platforms but also in spaces which already presented significant barriers to entry. One such case is Telegram which, at the end of 2019, began to cooperate closely with the authorities to remove jihadist content from its servers. This led to the permanent dismantling of an extensive jihadist propaganda distribution network that had, for years, helped offset the expulsions of radical discourse from the major Internet platforms.
The availability of tools with low barriers to entry attract a type of individual who might not have abandoned the realm of cognitive radicalisation if they had been forced to engage in more demanding activities than simply pushing a few buttons on their computer or phone screen.