Terrorists go social: How we help spread their message of fear

Written by: Ben McEvoy, Alina Kulesh with Rich Cooper

When terrorists stormed the 1972 Munich Olympic village⁠ — taking hostage and eventually killing 11 Israeli athletes in front of an estimated 900 million viewers ⁠— a complicated relationship emerged between terrorists and the media. Over the course of the past four decades, terrorists have learned how to use the media to spread their messages of fear. And now, this relationship is undergoing another troubling transformation which is connecting us directly to them for the first time.

Terrorists have become content creators

If broadcast television and portable cameras were the technology that first brought terrorism into our homes, the emergence of new technologies have brought terrorists even further into our lives. Cell phone cameras have allowed terrorists to stage and film their own attacks reducing their previous reliance on broadcast media.

The rise of social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have created a multitude of new channels and platforms for terrorist organizations to broadcast their message directly to. This gives them more intimate access to audiences and even allows them to target specific users.

Groups like ISIS now film footage of gruesome executions and share it with the general public without impunity. Some of their horrifying messages of terror are even used as recruiting videos to attract new members.

Other tech companies such as Telegram, an encrypted social messaging app, have been used by terrorists to communicate with each other and plan their attacks.

Live streaming’ makes it even easier for violence to be captured in the blink of an eye and then instantly distributed to the masses. This tactic was employed most recently during the attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.

It’s clear that social media has become the leading communication tool for terrorists worldwide.

The responsibility of digital media companies

Organizations that own the social media platforms being employed by terrorists have been under scrutiny for not doing enough to stem their use.  Over the past three years, Twitter has deleted a total of 1.2 million accounts that promoted terrorism. Facebook claims that 99% of the content they delete relating to terrorism is identified by artificial intelligence. 

Yet their actions and words often echo similar attitudes from media companies of the past generation — their role is not censorship but distribution. Governments have little direct leverage over these companies and how they operate. Former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May believes investors should play a role by pressuring technology companies to take action.  "Investors can make a big difference here by ensuring trust and safety issues are being properly considered," she says.

We are helping terrorists spread their message too

PEOPLE HOLDING CELLPHONES

Photo: istock

Now we all have the ability to capture high-quality footage from the phones in our pockets making us potential operators in the terrorists’ camera crew. When the offices of Charlie Hedbo were attacked by two Islamic extremists, a local policeman attempted to stop the assailants. An eyewitness used his phone to capture the gunmen as they executed the wounded policeman on the pavement outside the magazine’s offices.

News organizations often use content shot by onlookers in their reporting and when we share these stories we become unwitting accomplices in helping terrorists spread their message of fear.

As we educate ourselves about the dynamic between terrorists and the media, being aware of the role we play on social media can help break the cycle.

This article was created for After Munich a documentary that explores the emotional aftermath the Munich Massacre over 45 years later. Visit aftermunich.com for additional exclusive content  for a deeper look into the rippling effects of Munich on us all.

After Munich premiers on documentary Channel on September 8 at 9 PM.

Produced with additional funding from: