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Find a way to counter social media-savvy terrorists

Pakistan-sponsored terror outfits, especially in the Kashmir Valley, have also been found taking recourse to social media in a big way. India needs to come up with progressive legislation for regulating the social media

analysis Updated: Sep 13, 2017 16:55 IST
This Friday, July 7, 2017 photo, shows a Facebook site that features  Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, in Islamabad. A senior Pakistani government official says more than 40 of 65 organisations banned in Pakistan operate flourishing social media sites, communicating on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Telegram to recruit, raise money and demand a rigid Islamic system.
This Friday, July 7, 2017 photo, shows a Facebook site that features Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, in Islamabad. A senior Pakistani government official says more than 40 of 65 organisations banned in Pakistan operate flourishing social media sites, communicating on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Telegram to recruit, raise money and demand a rigid Islamic system. (AP)

These days the social media seems to be a favourite haunt as well as tool of terrorist outfits. The Taliban ,otherwise known to be an orthodox outfit, was among the first to start a Twitter account sometime in 2011, followed by the al Qaeda, Al Shabaab of Somalia and the ISIS. All these have used social media as a medium for propaganda as well as recruitment. Pakistan-sponsored terror outfits, especially in the Kashmir Valley, have also been found taking recourse to social media in a big way. Besides Kashmir, some videos of ISIS involving Indian fugitives in the erstwhile IS territory have also surfaced. Terror outfits’ display of strength by uploading videos of gun-toting members or leaders’ speeches has become quite conspicuous, hogging airtime as well as print headlines.

The beginning of this century saw Anwar al Awlaki’s online propaganda leading to the creation of a brigade of Al Qaeda elements in different parts of the globe. The online edition of ‘Inspire’ magazine — a mouthpiece of al Qaeda — educated a whole generation of aspiring terrorists about technical aspects of bomb-making. Gradually such online propaganda turned ugly with ISIS releasing grotesque visuals of the slitting of throats of victims made to wear orange jumpsuits by the perpetrator better known as “Jihadi John”. Though the Valley-based terror tapes released so far are not half as gruesome, being largely confined to propaganda by way of sermons and explanations, internal squabbling among different elements in pursuit of self-aggrandisement may nudge them in a similar direction.

Besides propaganda, secure communication platforms offered by a host of Internet giants have posed major challenges for the law enforcement fraternity across the globe. As a flip side, the world wide web is a safe haven for and provides all that terror networks need to grow-anonymity, accessibility and a power to broadcast without a whip. A high degree of encryption as floated in the ‘darknet’ has further complicated the task of detection. Consequently, terror outfits have run amok in uploading materials which otherwise would have not circulated as fast, with the entire globe as its audience! Further, such malicious content providers are able to build terror nexuses beyond borders and are able to establish robust sleeper cells.

Taking advantage of Internet technology, surreptitious communication flourishes: Several chat platforms are found spreading rumours, malicious campaigns and in many cases active terror conspiracies as well. In the Kashmir Valley, many such groups have been continuously detected and dealt with accordingly by investigational measures. However, sans the support of service providers, beyond a point, investigation suffers.

Unlike the western countries where technology giants provide a reasonable degree of cooperation, we are yet to join that league. As reported by The Economist in one of its recent editions, some of the Internet giants under a voluntary agreement with European regulators are reviewing the content flagged as hateful and xenophobic: Facebook has gone up from 50% on a day to 58%, Twitter from 24% to 39%. Interestingly, in the early days the policy of Twitter — a votary for freedom of speech — was very stringent in terms of content regulation. The Nairobi Mall siege where Al Shabaab used Twitter as a platform for live broadcast of the mayhem it wreaked brought about a shift in Twitter’s policy leading to the suspension of accounts of those posting terror-related content. Although ISIS also extensively used Twitter handles, subsequently, periodic evaluation accompanied by suspension of accounts by Twitter continued.

Even so, whether in the West or elsewhere, all the Internet giants have invariably concealed information behind the curtain of privacy clauses. As I put pen to paper, a debate on striking a fine balance between liberty and regulation is raging. Precious little has been achieved, especially in countries like India for putting in place appropriate legal or technological mechanisms to deal with such misuse of cyberspace.

Hence it is imperative that we come up with progressive legislation for regulating the social media. The existing IT act 2000, alone is not sufficiently equipped to deal with it. In the absence of such laws, dealing with the aforementioned crisis emanating from the cyber world, more often than not, results in “cyber curfew” as seen in coercive measures such as shutting down of Internet services. Such steps can at best, temporarily meet the demands of the situation. As a long-term policy, they are not tenable .The solution then lies in devising new laws backed by the right technology to handle the new media and stave off the rampant use of cyber space by terror outfits.

Swayam Prakash Pani is an IPS officer serving in Jammu and Kashmir.

The views expressed are personal.