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Why Taking the Tabqa Dam is Important in the Fight against ISIS and Retaking of Raqqa

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Authors: Asaad H. Almohammad, Ph.D. & Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

This week U.S. Colonel Joseph E. Scrocca, a coalition public affairs officer and spokesman for the American-led command, declared from Baghdad that the Tabqa Dam (a.k.a., al-Thawra or Euphrates Dam) and the areas in close vicinity were “critical for the isolation of Raqqa and the next step toward an annihilation of ISIS in Syria.

” Similarly, many were taken by surprise when the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed and supported by American forces, began a major offensive to retake the Tabqa Dam. Meanwhile ISIS claimed on its social media channels that the Tabqa Dam, located about 40 km north of Raqqa, was damaged by coalition airstrikes amidst dangerously high water levels creating a danger of collapse and imminent flooding—a claim the U.S. military flatly refutes.[i] On March 30th, 2017 the SDF managed to send engineers in to open floodgates on the dam to release pressure although they did so while being shelled from ISIS.[ii]

For the last month we’ve been conducting investigative research on ISIS security forces. During the course of our investigation we have come across chatter and vetted some information from trusted sources on the ground in Syria about the Tabqa Dam. After news on the offensive broke, we asked our sources to gather and report more information on the operational significance of the dam. After a month-long investigation, a number of justifications for the selection of the dam to be the first target of the SDF and American forces were identified.

Electricity and Finance

Our research uncovered that during the first half of 2016 the dam supplied the governorate of Raqqah with 4 hours of electricity per day. During that period the lion’s share of power generated from the dam was sold to areas controlled by the Syrian regime, thus making the Syrian government the main purchaser of electricity generated by the dam. It is noteworthy that fees were collected in USD from agents of the Syrian regime by ISIS agents for the supplied electric power. This is not the first time that ISIS has been engaged in devil’s deals with the Syrian regime which it voraciously claims as it’s sworn enemy—yet ISIS has also sold oil to the Syrian regime and Syrian engineers have appeared in ISIS territory to repair oil pipelines and technology.[iii]

With around 20 hours per day of electricity shortages, ISIS agreed to allow local civilians to run generators. That decision lined up with ISIS’s financial risk aversion strategy, which can be observed in areas such as oil and gas. During the first half of 2016, just over 60 generators were operational inside the city of Raqqah. The generators are type 113, which indicates their strong operational capacity. During that period, local civilians had to rely on these generators for electricity. There were two packages: 1 and 10 Ampere. The package most frequently purchased by poorer civilians, 1 Ampere, was the minimum required for basic lighting. Those who could afford it bought 10 Ampere.

The aforementioned generators were allowed by ISIS to be owned and managed by local civilians on the condition that they buy their fuel from ISIS. The generators operate on mazut, a law quality fuel oil (a precursor of diesel fuel), and each generator consumes a barrel of mazut per day. ISIS charges USD $75 per barrel of mazut, enabling ISIS’s fuel directorate to generate at least USD $135,000 per month. On top of that ISIS charged those selling this electricity 11 % of their net profit. It is noteworthy that the previous calculation only taps the value of fuel that is sold to owners of generators operating within the city of Raqqah. At the time, it was estimated that the number of generators operating within ISIS-held territories to be at least three times higher. That means at least 180 generators.

By the second half of the year 2016, the electricity situation changed. The power supply to Raqqah governorate increased to an average of 15 to 20 hours per day. The aforementioned figures suggest that during the second half of 2016, the power supply to the governorate of Raqqah was the best it had been since 2006. Sources reported that ISIS shifted the electric power supply to Raqqah governorate because the Syrian regime didn’t pay their bills to compensate for their supplied electricity so they were cut off. However, during the early months of the first half 2016, the Syrian regime paid the salaries of the dam employees, again indicating the complicity that has existed when necessary between these sworn enemies.

The increased supply of electricity in the second half of 2016 directly corresponded to ISIS’s assigning the directorate of public services the task of collecting utility fees. Moreover, ISIS started compensating experts and technicians working at the dam. Sources added that shortly before March 2017 ISIS had purchased replacement parts required to repair damage to the power grid in Raqqah governorate. It is noteworthy that during the second half of 2016, ISIS increasingly enforced a fiscal policy that made their issued currency the only accepted currency to pay fines and taxes. To that effect, it is observed that ISIS’s policy moved from risk-averse to high-risk regarding power supply.

Data obtained from sources in Raqqah suggest that ISIS’s shift towards a more risky form of investment in public infrastructure payed off. Our investigation uncovered around 482,700 households registered as electricity subscribers in the governorate of Raqqah during a time when ISIS only accepted fees in the form of its self-issued ‘Islamic dinar.’ ISIS sets the value of its currency. 1 ‘Islamic dinar’ equated to around 1,320 (Syrian Pound) SYP. In the months prior to the offensive to retake the Tabqa Dam from ISIS, the average fees for power per household were between 9,500 and 10,500 SYP. These numbers indicate that ISIS collects between USD $21,395,278 and $23,647,412 on average per month from utility subscribers. These figures alone make the dam a strategic target in the fight against ISIS, to cut smash them on the financial front.

Furthermore, a number of sources reported other financial activities that took a place within the facilities of the Tabqa Dam. A key player of ISIS’s financial directorate operated from the dam during the first half of 2016. During that time al-Habari Oil Field, close to Resafa, Raqqah, was operational. Around 3,200 barrels of crude oil were extracted from the field every 2 days. It is noteworthy that ISIS sold the oil prior to its extraction. Payment from those buying crude oil from ISIS was made at the administrative facilities of the dam. Within Resafa, Raqqah, oil extracted from al-Habari Oil field was shipped to an oil refinery. Refineries are commonly owned and managed by locals who have obtained permission to operate from ISIS. Buyers of the oil sell it to the refinery, pay for the refining services, or sell to other traders. In any case, those owning the refinery have to pay a tax to ISIS, around 12 %, of their monthly revenue. This and related taxes are paid to the agent of ISIS’s directorate of finance in the administrative facilities of the Tabqa Dam. On the same day the taxes are collected, representatives of ISIS directorate of finance move the money to Raqqah city.

Other evidence hints to financial activities that take place within the administrative facilities of the Tabqa Dam. During late June, ISIS ordered the arrest of a security operative known by the alias Abu Hajir for embezzling USD $150,000. He worked at the dam facilities.

These two financial activities are evidence of the financial significance of the Tabqa Dam. The dam, in part, served as a taxation department. Foremost however, it generated massive revenue for the group. Those two key functions might have played a major role in justifying the operation to retake the dam from ISIS.

Military Hot Targets

Notwithstanding the financial aspects, which may have impelled the U.S. and its Syrian allies to cooperate on an unprecedented level in the effort to retake the dam, our investigation showed other potential justifications for the operation. We managed to obtain data that uncovered a key player in ISIS (see our forthcoming investigative piece on ISIS security forces and its leadership) who has used the dam as his operational base. From his office within the administrative facilities of the Tabqa Dam, this ISIS leader came to establish ISIS’s security forces (a.k.a., Al-Amnyah, Nukta 11 [Point 11 in English]), raid/death squads, the Caucasian squads, the Islamic police, the military police, and ISIS’s Special Operations office. Within a year of joining the ranks of ISIS, he also became the Wali of Raqqah. Under the umbrella of the security forces, ISIS leadership oversees all attacks within its controlled territories and abroad.

Moreover, the raid/death squads’ central command was within Raqqa governorate. Raid/death squads are unique in the sense that they don’t need to get the permission of the Shariah judge, a typical requirement, to conduct operations, carry out arrests, or eliminate targets, be they what ISIS has labelled as “enemy fighters”, “civilians”, or “ISIS members”. For a long period the whereabouts of their bases were unknown. As of mid-March 2017, one of their bases was uncovered. This base was located at the administrative facilities of the Tabqa Dam.

Additionally, data obtained from multiple sources revealed that within Tabqa Dam, ISIS’s security forces managed a detention center. That detention center was designated to imprison those accused of threating the security of ISIS. High profile figures were detained at this centre. Sources confirmed the presence of foreign detainees. ISIS defectors also told us of training camps near the Tabqa Dam and that prisoners from the dam area were brought for graduates of ISIS shariah training to execute as they made their bayats to ISIS.[iv]

To that effect, it has been demonstrated that the factors described above present overwhelming justification to label the dam as a significant military target for the U.S. and its Syrian Allies. Based on our research, the dam has hosted intelligence, militant, and detention centers, making it an extremely hot military target. However, it also functions as a type of shield; if it is attacked, then many civilians could be harmed by immediate flooding, thus providing a deterrent to targeting the centers located within.

Other Considerations

After the offensive on the dam, some of our sources were contacted to gather data of potential importance. Multiple sources confirmed that, during January 2017, ISIS withdrew its forces from a number of locations around Tabqa and in its immediate vicinity. The data also uncovered that ISIS’s security forces led an operation to publically humiliate tribal leaders within the aforementioned region. Those tribal leaders were detained at the dam and blackmailed into giving a public pledge of allegiance to ISIS and its self-declared Caliph. The purpose of that operation was to enroll the members of these tribes into the fighting forces on the front lines. It is clear that ISIS fears the advancement of Kurdish-led forces in that region.

Moreover, the Tabqa dam and city present an opportunity for the Syrian regime, backed by Hezbollah and Russian forces, to gain more ground. The dam itself is Russian made and could be symbolic in this context. It has been a common practice of the Syrian regime to carry out offensives against forces in areas liberated from ISIS and other extremists (e.g., Al-Nusra Front [a.k.a., Jabhat al-Nusra or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham]).

Lastly, the SDF is largely made of People’s Protection Units (YPG). Amnesty International accused the group of human rights violations in February 2015 and the group is very unpopular in the majority Arab governorate. The YPG has ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organisation by the U.S. and EU, making Turkey very uncomfortable. Local and Turkish reaction to the YPG growing influence would be damaging if the SDF and U.S. forces manage to move against the dam and ultimately retake Raqqa. Nothing in this conflict is simple or straightforward, nor are there any easy answers on how to proceed.

Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne (March 29, 2017) Why Taking the Tabqa Dam is Important in the Fight against ISIS and Retaking of Raqqa. ICSVE Brief Reports

[i] NBC News. (March 27, 2017). ISIS, U.S.-Backed Forces Battle Over Syria’s Tabqa Dam. http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/isis-u-s-backed-forces-battle-over-syria-s-tabqa-n738816 Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/isis-u-s-backed-forces-battle-over-syria-s-tabqa-n738816

[ii] Rudaw. (March 30, 2017). Engineers open Tabqa dam spillway, come under ISIS mortar fire. Rudaw. Retrieved from http://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/290320171

[iii] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC. And Speckhard, A. (April 27, 2016). ISIS revenues include sales of oil to the al-Assad regime. ICSVE Brief Reports. Retrieved from http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/isiss-revenues-include-sales-of-oil-to-the-al-assad-regime/

[iv] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.

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How 4chan Radicalizes Youth and Grooms Them Towards Terrorism

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The image board was started in 2003 to discuss anime and various other topics but festered into a safe space for hateful rhetoric soon after. In the aftermath of yet another racially motivated mass shooting by a frequent user, its dangers have finally reached the mainstream.

4chan is an extremely unique website. It has been running since 2003, and over the course of almost 20 years, has influenced many internet memes and phenomena. However, in the wake of the European Migrant Crisis in 2015 and the 2016 Presidential Election, it became associated with white supremacy, especially on its /pol/ board. This hateful rhetoric festered, worsening in 2020 during the COVID pandemic and George Floyd protests. 4chan was sprung into the spotlight once again on May 14th, 2022, when a white supremacists livestreamed his massacre of a supermarket.

This attack, fresh in American’s minds, led many to question why 4chan is still allowed to exist. This comes after 4chan’s rhetoric inspired a 2015 mass shooting in Oregon and its users aided in the organization in the Unite The Right Rally and the January 6th Riots. Clearly 4chan is a hotbed for far-right terrorism. But why is this image board the way it is? The answer lies in its lax moderation of content.

Upon looking at 4chan, you will find it is mostly made up of pornography. However, if you go on the site’s /pol/ board, it does not take long to find the kind of rhetoric that radicalized the Buffalo shooter. One particular post I found featured a racist joke at the expense of Black people. Another was praising fighters in the Ukrainian Azov battalion while joking about killing trans people. Yet another post complained about an “influx of tourists” due to the Buffalo shooter, who they insulted with an anti-gay slur. These memes and jokes seem to appeal to a younger, perhaps teenaged audience. It is clear that they are still trying to recruit youth into their ranks even after the tragedy in Buffalo.

The content is, to say the least, vile. The fact that this stuff is permitted and encouraged by not just the userbase (which numbers in the millions) but also many moderators tells us that there is something fundamentally wrong with 4chan. In fact, copies of the livestreamed Buffalo massacre were spread widely on 4chan to the amusement of its userbase.

Many of the users on 4chan are social rejects who feel as if they have nothing to lose. They feel unaccepted and alienated from society, so they turn to 4chan. Many harmful ideologies, such as White supremacy and incel ideologies, seem extremely validating for these dejected youth.  Young, socially alienated men, who make up the majority of 4chan’s userbase, are also among the most vulnerable demographics for radicalization.

What can we do to prevent further radicalization of youth and deradicalize those already affected by harmful rhetoric? First of all, we need to either heavily regulate 4chan or have it shut down. There is no space on the internet for this kind of hatred or incitement to commit horrific acts like what happened in Buffalo. For those already radicalized, we need to perform a campaign of deradicalization among those affected by this rhetoric. But how can this be done?

4chan prides itself on anonymity, so it is difficult to figure out who uses it. Thus, education on radicalization and identification of propaganda is vital. This education should focus on adolescents mostly due to their predisposition towards radicalization when exposed to hateful rhetoric. While White supremacy must be emphasized, other forms of radicalization should be mentioned as well such as Jihadism and other forms of ethnic supremacy. Finally, tolerance must be fostered among all people, not just those at risk of becoming groomed into terrorism.

The age of 4chan has spawned many humorous memes, but it has since become a hotbed for hatred and terrorism. Since memes are able to convey dangerous ideas, websites like Reddit and Facebook need to be heavily regulated to prevent the dissemination of dangerous misinformation. It is unlikely that 4chan will ever moderate itself, as lack of strict moderation is its defining feature. Thus, it has overstayed its welcome and no longer has a place in today’s information-driven society.

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New ISIS Strategy and the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan

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ISKP Uzbek Jihadist

Unlike Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the second late leader of ISIS, who was derided as a “secluded paper caliph” and “an unknown nobody” for his relative anonymity and non-publicity, the new caliph of the Islamic State, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, has apparently launched a new strategy to strengthen linkages to regional wilayahs (provinces) and boost the group’s global presence.

Indeed, during his short time leading the group (31 October 2019 – 3 February 2022), Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi never publicly addressed his followers, which negatively affected the coordination of the activities of Islamic State-Central (ISC) and its regional branch of the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP). Although his killing during a US counterterrorism raid in northwest Syria in early February was a major blow to the global jihadi organization, the change in leadership nevertheless provided it with new opportunities to update its command-and-control, recruitment and propaganda campaign.

Predictably, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, the new ISIS overall leader, sees his historical role not only in ensuring the Caliphate’s continuity and avoiding its potential fragmentation but also in establishing a more direct and consistent command line between its core in Iraq and Sham and its Central and South Asian affiliates.

ISIS collage dedicated to rocket attack on Uzbek Termez

The new strategy of the Islamic Caliphate not only gave a new impetus to its Khorasan offshoot waging a holy jihad in post-American Afghanistan against the Taliban but also opened a new front line against the post-Soviet Central Asian regimes. Indeed, the analysis of ISKP activities revealed that the proclamation of Abu al-Hassan al-Quraishi as the new Caliph and the launch of a new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” increased the combat capability of IS Uzbek and Tajik fighters, as well as strengthened the coordination of local language and IS-Central propaganda machines.

Notoriously, on April 17, ISIS launched the new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, and his official spokesperson, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who were killed in a US raid in February in the northwest Syrian town of Atmeh. In his recent audio address, Islamic State’s new spokesman Abu-Omar al-Muhajir called on the Caliphate warriors to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leaders by “painfully striking” the enemies of “al-mujahideen” and saying that if they kill, they should “kill by many.” This call was made to the group’s followers worldwide and asked them to remain patient, but also be ready when the “war” begins. Al-Muhajir called to expand the campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to the territory of US, Europe and Central Asia, urging Muslims living there to follow the lead of past “lone wolves” who conducted operations that “filled with horror.” He asked them to repeat “lone wolf” operations by stabbing, attacking, and ramming, and drawing inspiration from recent attacks in Israel.

ISKP Threat to Central Asia

Among the first to support the Islamic State’s new ‘global offensive’ campaign were ISKP Uzbek and Tajik jihadists challenging the new Taliban government and dreaming of overthrowing the ‘Taghut (idolaters) regimes’ in Central Asia. Thus, inspired by the new Caliph’s new strategy, for the first time in the history of the Islamic State, they managed to conduct a transnational jihadi operation from Afghanistan to the territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Initially, on April 18, 2022, the ISKP fired ten rocket salvos into the territory of Uzbekistan, which was successfully exploited by the Uzbek-speaking regional jihadi media and IS-Central’s propaganda resources as evidence of the opening of a “second front” in the Central Asian direction. Expert assessments clearly observed the good coordination between the IS-Central’s media and ISKP’s local jihadi mouthpieces, both in terms of Islamic ideological content and hierarchical sequences.

ISKP Uzbek nasheed performer Asadulloh Urganchiy

The Islamic State-Central’s Amaq News Agency reported that “Mujahedeen of the Caliphate have fired 10 Katyusha rockets at a murtad (apostasy) Uzbekistan’s military base in the border town of Termez.” The ISIS central media wing also released a photo and video of the projectiles to back its claims. Another IS-Central’s weekly al-Naba newsletter also widely covered the topic of rocket attacks by detailing how the projectiles were fired from Afghan territory on the Central Asian nation.

Following IS-Central official news agencies reports, IS-Khurasan Willayah’s local media outlets, such as Al-Azaim Foundation and Khurasan Radio, the Uzbek-language Xuroson Ovozi (Voice of Khurasan), Tavhid Habar (Tawhid News), Tajik-language Telegram channels Mujahideen of the Caliphate and The Army of the Victorious Nation published a series of audio, video and text messages in Uzbek and Tajik detailing the goals, causes, and consequences of the rocket attack. In particular, Al-Azaim Foundation glorified the rocket attack as “the heroism of the brave lions of Allah Almighty punishing the corrupt army of the murtad Uzbek government.”

The ISKP media outlets were extremely outraged by the Uzbek government’s denial of the rocket attack, claiming that nothing had landed on their territory. In response, pro-ISKP Uzbek, Tajik and Russian Language Telegram channels re-posted IS-Central’s statement, photos, videos of the attacker and a map marked with the possible rocket impact location in Termez.

Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi experts’ attention was drawn to a 24-minute audio address of Khuroson Mujahid, the leader of ISKP Uzbek group, whose speech style and ideological views strongly resembled the late ISIS chief strategist Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. His speech revealed that the ideological vision of ISKP Central Asian jihadists, staunch followers of Takfiri Salafism, is in line with the Islamic State’s global agenda. He considers democracy to be the religion of “murtad states” of Central Asia, the Taliban government and Pakistan. He believes that due to committing shirk (idolatry), deviating Allah and doubting Tawheed (God’s Oneness), the leaders of taghut countries should be killed.

Considering Khuroson’s oratorical skills, Takfiri persuasion and ideological savvy, it is quite possible that the ISKP recruitment and incitement campaign will intensify in Central Asia in the near future. Obviously, the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP in the military, media and ideological directions reached a new level in the more permissive operating environment of post-American Afghanistan.

On May 7, the ISKP carried out a second rocket attack, this time into Tajikistan. According to the Central Media Office (Diwan al-I’lam al-Markazi) of ISIS, “Caliphate’s fighters fired seven rockets from the Khawaja Ghar district of Afghanistan’s Takhar Province towards the Tajik military base near the city of Kulob.” The rocket attacks on the territories of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for three weeks nevertheless mark a clear escalation by ISKP Central Asian foreign fighters from just hostile anti-five post-Soviet “murtad governments” rhetoric to direct militant action.

Notably, the methods of media coverage of both attacks and the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP’s local media resources were clearly similar. The algorithm of their actions was in line with the new ISIS strategy. Thus, IS-Central posted a brief information about the rocket attacks with video and photos, then the Tajik, Uzbek and Pashto-language local media resources of ISKP glorified the “warriors of Allah”. The Uzbek-language pro-Islamic State Telegram channels Islomiy Maruza Davat Guruh, Khuroson Ovozi, Tawheed news, the Tajik-language Telegram channel of Ulamoi Rabboni (إنَّ اللّٰهَ مَعَنَا) actively propagated ISKR rocket attacks, undermining the image and credibility of the military potential of Tajikistan and the Taliban.

These Central Asian pro-IS media resources, supported by IS-Central propaganda bodies and comprised of a constellation of official branch outlets, regional pro-ISKP groups, and grassroots supporters have become a prominent voice aggressively impugning the Taliban’s reputation in the global jihadi world. Such method makes it possible to preserve the hierarchical structure and maintain a uniform media strategy of the global jihadi group. This reflects that after the fall of the Caliphate and a series of dramatic losses of its leaders, ISIS has learned a bitter lesson and is now moving from centralizing power to strengthening its wilayahs.

Apparently, the ISKP seeks to broaden its appeal in Central Asia both through increasing cross-border attacks against Afghanistan’s neighbors and ramping up the production, translation, and dissemination of propaganda directed at Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz communities in the region. These rocket attacks and ISKP’s propaganda campaigns targeting Central Asians for recruitment are any indicators, the group has become a serious jihadi power challenging not only the Taliban government, but also the post-Soviet authoritarian regimes. Through its Uzbek, Tajik and Pashto-language Telegram channels, the ISKP is conducted an unprecedented activity to recruit Central Asian jihadi groups affiliated with al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as new radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley.

Future of ISKP Central Asian Jihadists

Obviously, the ISKP is exploiting the US military withdrawal from the region and the Afghan Taliban’s deviation from the hardline jihadi concept by successfully portraying their government as a Pashtun ethno-nationalist organization rather than a bona fide Islamic movement.

In conclusion, it is to be expected that the ISKP will actively capitalize external operations to undermine the legitimacy of the Taliban government, which assured the US and Central Asian neighbors not to allow Afghan soil to be used to attack Afghanistan’s neighbors. Strengthening cross-border rocket attacks has already raised the morale of ISKP fighters and consolidated its support base.

Thus, the new Islamic State’s strategy to strengthen its offshoots in its provinces is quite capable to reestablish its positioning in the broader global jihadi movement, which we see in the example of IS-Khorasan Province.

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How Memes Can Spread Dangerous Ideas

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Internet memes are an excellent way to send powerful messages to millions of people. But what happens when they are used for malicious purposes?

Memes have been a means of transmitting messages for centuries, proliferating immensely in recent decades due to their mass proliferation through the internet and their ability to broadcast messages to a massive audience. They have quite a bit of cultural significance and can be based on almost anything, provided they achieve viral status. However, memes have been subject to abuse by malicious groups and actors.

From the Blue Whale Challenge, an internet challenge that resulted in multiple suicides worldwide, to terrorist organizations like ISIS, which use internet memes to recruit young people, memes can be used for malicious purposes. Even toxic subcultures like MGTOW serve as a pipeline towards the incel movement. Indeed, such male supremacist organizations are not strangers to using memes and viral media to propagate their ideas and recruit young men and boys to their cause. In fact, one influencer, who goes by Sandman MGTOW, often posts such misogynistic memes and videos on his Twitter and YouTube channel.

These kinds of memes are easily identifiable by their bias towards a specific issue and their often-political message. One great example of a meme that has been subject to abuse by malicious actors is Pepe the frog. Based on a character by Matt Furie, this meme was abused by the alt right, being depicted as controversial figures such as Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. The meme was so badly abused by these far-right actors that it was listed as a hate symbol by the ADL.

Memes have also influenced major world events like the 2016 election in the United States and the Arab Spring revolutions in the early 2010’s, which garnered immense media attention through the use of internet memes and viral media. This shows that memes can have the power to influence elections (albeit slightly) and topple oppressive regimes. Being a powerful tool for spreading information, there is also the use of memes for spreading misinformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic mediated a sizeable but modest anti-vaccine movement in countries like the United States, Canada, and Germany. These anti-vaxx groups used social media like Facebook and Reddit to spread memes full of misinformation and pseudo-science It can also be argued that memes were effective tools in spreading misinformation around the elections of 2016 and 2020 in the United States. Memes, while powerful, can be used by malicious actors such as far-right groups and anti-vaxx groups to peddle false information. This has contributed to the US having a COVID death toll of over one million, higher than most other countries worldwide.

The world has progressed quite a bit in the information age. People are able to communicate ideas with millions of people worldwide in seconds. The proliferation if information has never been more efficient in history. That is why the threats that arise from the mass proliferation of memes and viral media are so dire. As was seen during the 2016 and 2020 US elections, COVID, and Arab Spring, memes can be spread to convey messages that can change nations, affect millions (perhaps even billions) of people, and topple dictators. It has become possible for people to change the course of history with a single tweet or a single meme on Reddit or Instagram going viral.

What can we do to stem the massive proliferation of memes that serve to recruit people into dangerous organizations and fill their minds with misinformation? The answer lies in how we confront our biases and how we detect misinformation. People need to be informed about how they can detect bias and propaganda, in addition to using independent fact-checking services. By identifying propaganda from malicious actors and misinformation from online groups, we can stop the spread of dangerous memes before they proliferate.

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