Fostering Social Media Literacy: Addressing Terrorism and Extremism in the Digital Age

Social media has become more than a platform of entertainment. It has become a battlefield with the transition of threat dimensions from physical military components to intangible dimensions such as cyber and information spaces.

At present, social media has become more than a platform of entertainment. It has become a battlefield with the transition of threat dimensions from physical military components to intangible dimensions such as cyber and information spaces. With the advent of social media which supersedes print media, information creation, modification, amplification as well as dissemination have become trouble-free. However, the very same matter acts as a facilitator of terrorism, radicalization as well and violent extremism. When social media falls into the hands of the defaced, repercussions are varied including public disharmony, political instability, separatism, terrorism and erosion of law and order. In light of the said matters, this article attempts to explore the need to foster social media literacy.

According to, (Aichner et al, 2021), “The term “social media” (SM) was first used in 1994 in a Tokyo online media environment, called Matisse”. It was in these early days of the commercial Internet that the first SM platforms were developed and launched. Over time, both the number of SM platforms and the number of active SM users have increased significantly, making it one of the most important applications of the Internet.” When perusing the history and events, earlier social media applications such as Instagram and Twitter were not highly for news purposes however Twitter and Facebook platforms were used to spread news and knowledge sharing. Furthermore,  apps like TikTok and Pinterest were mostly utilized for entertainment purposes. Regardless, at present there is a transition from the purpose of utilizing these social media apps which have become a source of information and a platform of verification and dissemination rather than for entertainment purposes. This for a matter of fact is not negative because social media itself has objectives of educating the public, creating awareness, networking and keeping updated. Nonetheless, the tragedy occurs when social media becomes a haven for those who utilize it for ill purposes.  According to (Torregano,2022),  as stated by “experts, up to 80% of millennials and Generation Z use YouTube, TikTok and Instagram as a primary source of information for updates on the war in Ukraine.”.

With the above being said, it is crucial to look into the threats posed by social media which has fallen prey to politically manipulated individuals who have ulterior motives, profit-driven individuals who do not have a stake in public interest, terrorists, radicalized individuals as well as extremists. For the article when looking at terror or extremist content in social media, there is a multitude of factors to be concerned about. First and foremost, why do terrorists and extremists use social media? This is because social media is widely accessible to a greater audience, cost-effective, constantly updated and easy to handle. Secondly, this reason for the utilization of social media by terrorists and extremists has resulted in a change in the threat dimensions. Unlike a bomb which is explored and causes physical, and emotional damage and psychological trauma, the information and cyber wars are far worse since they result in an escalating impact. Explaining, when terror content is uploaded by way of a meme or a tweet it leaves a digital footprint. When fictitious terror narratives such as false religious interpretations are disseminated online, the more it is done, it becomes believable by setting a precedent. In addition, to disseminate terror content and make it believable and part and parcel of society, terrorists and extremists also use social media to recruit individuals, spread their ideology by way of psychological operations, conduct propaganda and do narratives as well as counter-narratives. According to (the National Consortium For the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism), “The PIRUS data reveal four key findings on the relationship between social media and the radicalization of U.S. extremists…In fact, in 2016 alone, social media played a role in the radicalization processes of nearly 90% of the extremists in the Profiles of Individual Radicalisation in the USA (PIRUS) data, Lone actors in the PIRUS data were particularly active on social media. From 2005-2016, social media played a role in the radicalization and mobilization processes of 68.12% of the lone actors in the PIRUS data. In 2016 alone, social media factored into the radicalization and mobilization processes of 88.23% of the lone actors in the PIRUS data. By comparison, from 2005-2016, social media factored into the radicalization of 50.15% of individuals who were members of extremist groups or radical cliques.”

Social media community guidelines itself is unable to ensure information security. For instance, as pointed out by (Kumar,2022) “Facebook’s Community Standards state that organizations that are engaged in terrorist activity are not allowed on the platform; however, what is classified as ‘terrorist content’ under Facebook’s policy is a highly subjective question under which the platform is given complete discretion. Additionally, “by its admission, Facebook continues to find it challenging to detect and respond to hate speech content across dynamic speech environments, multiple languages, and differing social and cultural contexts.” Therefore, this showcases that technology and the human mind themselves do not guarantee obstruction and prevention of terror content.

To address terrorism and extremism in the digital age there can be an array of steps taken including countering narratives, doing rebuttals, monitoring content, moderating content, international collaboration, strengthening laws and instilling social media literacy. Specifically speaking, social media literacy is a crucial asset that can be instilled as well as fostered to prevent extremism and terrorism in the digital age.

Fostering social media literacy should be a collective effort whilst acting individually. From the eyes of individuals, individuals could enhance self-awareness by self-paced learning. In doing this, individuals must attempt to always check the source and think about credibility. For example, if a Facebook page dedicated to memes publishes a meme involving a threat to the country, an individual who is a follower of such an account should be able to understand this sudden diversity and check for sources. When doing that the follower can check news channels to see whether such information is truly circulating and whether this meme is a fabrication of or completely misleading content. Also, they could report falsified content. Second, the government should also play a pivotal role in preventing extremist content and providing necessary rebuttals through official channels. The government must hold perpetrators accountable which will give rise to a precedent. Moreover, the international community also have a crucial role to communicate and share best practices to prevent extremism and terrorism in the digital age. More importantly, social media companies as well as media authorities have an indispensable role. Explaining, that social media companies should engage human moderators as well as have stringent community guidelines which will discourage terror and extremist content. In addition, media authorities including journalists also have to abide by ethics and professionalism to prevent extremist and terror content and notify accordingly if come across any.

Charani Patabendige
Charani Patabendige
Charani LCM Patabendige is a Research Assistant and an Acting Research Analyst at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed is her own and not necessarily reflective of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.