How your social media privacy settings could be fueling global jihad and 8 ways to prevent it

The arrival of the digital media world in the mid-2000s dramatically altered the way terrorists operate. Previously, extremists could only reach a small audience already predisposed to participation through traditional means. Now, terrorist groups and their vast networks of sympathizers disseminate propaganda with unprecedented ease of access to millions of users through social networking. Depending on privacy settings, your social media accounts could be facilitating this rapid spread of terrorism.

The first extremist group to fully exploit the digital revolution was arguably the Islamic State, recognizing the power of digital media early on, when the jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi discovered the utility and shock-value of uploading grainy videos of his atrocities to the Internet. Since then, terrorist organizations maximize their reach by exploiting a variety of platforms: social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, peer-to-peer messaging apps like Telegram and Whatsapp, and content sharing systems like JustPaste.it.

J.M. Berger, an expert on extremist activities and use of social media, took a detailed look at how ISIS functions online, breaking it down into a five-part template: discovery, create micro-community, isolation, shift to private communications, identify and encourage action. The discovery phase is based on contact which can be initiated by the recruiter or the potential recruit. Social media has transformed this phase by lessens the threshold for contact. Jihadists no longer need to travel across borders to find potential recruits or raise funds. Any curious individual will have little-trouble finding terrorist propaganda, available in numerous languages, and can easily connect with intermediaries who will facilitate their recruitment.

Jihadist Discovery Process and Why it Affects You

Using public profiles, jihadists construct a virtual network where “recruiters monitor online communities where they believe they can find receptive individuals, but they also make themselves highly available to curiosity seekers,” Berger said. Facebook Friend-lists and liked pages are combed, Instagram pictures are perused for interests and location, and Twitter opinions are noted to discover potential recruits and ways in which to recruit them, by knowing where they are, how they feel, and what they are doing.

Groups like ISIS seeking people likely to sympathize with their cause tweet, retweet, and use popular hashtags, or hashtags relating to divisive current events such as the unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, are able to find these individuals who express sympathy or seem disenfranchised.  This is where they make contact. Once contact is made, the responses vary according to the target. Islamic State supporters, including foreign fighters, will often answer questions in a friendly and familiar manner; patiently awaiting a more substantial opportunity to proselytize.

To counter this threat, the government could try and crackdown through stricter internet regulation, however, this could actually play into the hands of the terrorist organizations.  These terror groups want nothing more than to bait governments into an overreaction that erodes popular senses of unity and freedom. If the target community alternatively became more consciously aware of their online presence, it would be much harder for jihadists to perpetuate their messages of hate and global jihad.

8 Steps to Secure Your Social Media from Jihadists

1.     Make all of your social media profiles private. This prevents a random person, or a potential jihadist, from freely accessing your personal information and the information of your friends.

2.     Only accept requests from people you actually know. A private profile is pointless if you add everyone ad-nauseam.

3.     Do not post sensitive information. Your new driver’s license picture is probably embarrassing anyway, so show your friends in person. Otherwise jihadist X might decide a convenient way to hide would be to assume your identity. Then you will have some serious problems… with the Department of Homeland Security.    

4.     Don’t completely fill out your social media profile. No matter how many times Facebook asks what your hometown is or how long you were working at So and So job, just click X. People who matter to you know this information already.

5.     Check all of your security settings and tailor them to your wants and needs. The initial settings are lax to allow for more interconnectivity. It’s up to the user to decide exactly what information you feel comfortable sharing.

P.S. Make sure to save changes or all the updates you made won’t actually be updated.

6.     Watch your advertisements. Don’t sign up for promotions and win-a-whatever ad. This will save you from a spam-filled email account, virus infected computer, or becoming a name on a jihadist list for identity theft and fraud. If you have a tendency to take those late 2010s personality quizzes, you probably have many connections to your accounts. Clean those out. Unsubscribe. Do some accounts-self-care.  

7.     Be wise about Wi-Fi: Avoid accessing your personal accounts from public computers or through public Wi-Fi spots. These spots can be trolled by hackers or jihadists just waiting to compromise your computer and personal information.

8.     The ‘block’ button is your friend. If you feel uncertain about someone or something, block it.

Overall, the Golden Rule of social media is: the more information shared, the more likely someone could impersonate you and trick one of your friends into sharing personal information or downloading malware.

Your social media usage need not be one of clandestine hermitage, with a fake name and indecipherable profile picture. You would be missing out on the obvious benefits of a globalized world or Facebook event invites. Just be aware of the possibility of becoming a victim to malicious entities. There is a whole other world of jihadists out there trying to find people, spread propaganda, and recruit the susceptible. Don’t be susceptible.