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Researcher follows IS groups on social media to understand extremism

2018-03-07

According to Michael Krona, understanding how terrorism spreads through social media is crucial to providing effective countermeasures against extremism and radicalisation.

For the past three years, Krona, a media and communications researcher at Malmö University, has been studying how Islamic State (IS) communicate through various media channels. While Facebook and Twitter were previously most used, the group’s communication has now migrated to new forms of media. For instance, the app Telegram has become popular. Like WhatsApp, Telegram is encrypted, allowing users to protect their identity, and can be used to chat as well as upload images and videos.

“Twitter started to shut down certain accounts, which is one of the reasons why IS moved their communication to Russian-owned Telegram, where they can communicate without censorship,” Krona explains.

In order to access groups and forums connected to Telegram, Krona has contacted and been assisted by researchers as well as IS supporters themselves.

Difficult and uncomfortable work

Although Krona studies the communication in these groups, he does not actively partake in discussions himself. If confronted with any questions, he leaves the group. He also changes his user name approximately every third day to avoid suspicion. The work is time-consuming, difficult and often uncomfortable. Krona has an archive consisting of 1400 video clips, of which most are execution videos.

“In the beginning, watching the videos made me feel really bad. However, I have learned to handle it through therapy and am driven by the desire to make the incomprehensible comprehensible.”

According to Krona, the purpose of IS’ communication is two-fold. First, IS wants to inspire individuals in Europe to carry out attacks in their home countries. Secondly, they want to uphold the morale of IS soldiers and encourage continued warfare in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Southeast Asia. Although propaganda from IS has declined since its military defeat in Syria and Iraq, a lot of activity is still taking place on social media.

“They are now using a guerrilla tactic; they have withdrawn but regrouped. This kind of communication is important as a counter argument to Western reporting,” says Krona.

Complex and decentralised communication

According to Krona, IS has the most complex and decentralised communication strategy among terrorist organisations.

“IS relies heavily on digital supporters to spread what the organisation communicates. From the very beginning, their doctrine has focused on how lay supporters can use social media and become media warriors.

“IS propaganda is both religious and political. Through forums, IS strengthens its religious belonging and its hatred towards the West, creating a strong common identity through ‘us against them’ rhetoric. The exact messages and arguments used depend on the target audience. For an international audience, they describe their successes — they want to incite respect and fear. In more regional propaganda, religion is given more weight.”

Filling the knowledge gap

Krona believes there is a lack of knowledge regarding the way in which social media and communication affects individuals.

As well as writing scientific articles, Krona is currently working to fill this gap by completing an anthology titled The Media World of ISIS, for which he is the co-editor. The book is due to be published this summer.

“You cannot understand extremism and individual actions if you don’t understand the terrorist organisation’s media practices. It says a lot about their organisation. The digital sphere is a reflection of physical realities.”

Text: Charlotte Orban

Last updated by Maya Acharya