Terrorist Use of the Internet: Talking the Talk

This week the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee hosted a meeting at the UN headquarters in New York to discuss the terrorist use of the internet, a controversial issue that has gained significant momentum in the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks.

Members of the private sector, academia, NGOs and official delegations gathered to engage in a much needed discussion and exchange of ideas. The meeting succeeded in depicting the current scenario of the phenomenon of the terrorist use of the internet, and in particular of social media. However, by the end of each session it was obvious that the amount of questions that continued to emerge was overwhelmingly superior to that of the answers that were being delivered.

Like most of my colleagues, I left the UN's headquarters with a question mark in the top of my head. After months of research on the rationale behind ISIS's use of social media, and engaging in heated debates about the issue, we are concerned; Not about the lack of information or the readiness of the mentioned actors to engage in debate, but about the imminent wall dividing the knowledge produced in these spheres and policy makers.

Today policy makers are terrified by ISIS' unmatchable communications and technological skills. The terrorist use of social media has become the battlefield where intelligence and law enforcement agencies have embarrassed themselves in the last year playing whack-a-mole over and over again. Hillary Clinton's discourse on the lack of cooperation from the private sector and the need to get Silicon Valley on board have found echo among politicians and civil society. The pressure has managed to persuade characters like Pavel Durov, founder of VK and Telegram, to explicitly condemn the terrorist use of one of Telegram's features in its Terms of Use section. But at the end of the day, companies will be companies, and, in the U.S. -where some of the largest social media companies are based- the First Amendment will remain irrevocable. Bottom line, companies do not have an incentive other than goodwill to assume a more proactive stand against the terrorist use of their services, and policy makers have failed to manufacture one. States have demonstrated that they have not found the formula to dismantle ISIS' presence in cyberspace. We are on a dead-end road.

This is where we stand today, discussing a problem that we already understand, and trying to find ways to expand the current efforts of counter-messaging, online education, and blocking and shutting down Twitter accounts, without any data to support the success of such strategies. At this point, academia, think tanks and NGOs stand in frustration before a policy making system that continues to ignore the now obvious fact that this is a war that cannot be wined on a single front.

As many in the think tank community believe, the current efforts to fight ISIS are not enough. Engaging in a realistic counter-messaging battle will require greater resources and greater numbers. But are we ready to bet on this strategy when there is no actual evidence on two crucial parts of this equation? On the one hand, there is no data on the actual impact of the use of social media in the recruitment numbers, on the other, there is no data or reliable measurement that demonstrates that the online efforts undertaken by some western states at the expense of privacy and freedom of speech have actually weakened ISIS' online presence. Why then, do policy makers keep holding on to counter messaging, and blocking and reporting strategies? Because they have to. It is not enough, but it sure is necessary. Governments cannot simply let ISIS take the web without at least putting up a fight. Furthermore, due to a variety of reasons and pressures, policy makers are inclined to take action in the short-term. This is understandable. What is not as understandable is the unwillingness to recognize that, while the online counteroffensive is important and that a reactive and short-term response are necessary, these efforts should not comprise the main strategy in the online war. A structural and long-term strategy is now crucial.

In one of the panels at the UN meeting, a delegate mentioned that policy makers must channelize their energies in blocking and tackling the source, not only behave reactively. We must be able to fight and weaken ISIS' capacity to produce and spread propaganda. We must also ask ourselves what is it that makes certain groups so receptive to such propaganda. There, at the source, is where the main battle should be taking place. Unfortunately, while this conclusion was celebrated by many in the room, it was soon set aside of the mainstream conversation, and forgotten.

It is time to move on to the next level in this conversation. It is time to think preventively and proactively, rather than solely reactively. As David Fidler, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations told me in an interview, government officials are failing to recognize that ISIS' online presence is the symptom, rather than the actual problem. This is where the debate should be moving towards now. It's been enough of exploring and discussing the nature of the threat and the areas of opportunity of the online counteroffensive. It is time to act recognizing that what we see online, comes from somewhere in the material world, and we must do so urgently. And finally, as Zeynep Tufekci brilliantly argued in an Op-Ed at The New York Times in late November, the discussion must involve broader issues and recognize that "The challenge is not how to collect more data from everyone, but how to identify and track the few truly dangerous people."