Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET) Webinar Focussing on Terrorist use of Tech Platforms.
I took part recently in a fascinating webinar hosted by the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET) focusing on terrorist use of tech platforms – an issue which is gaining more traction across Africa and which we are keen to conduct further research into. The objective is to communicate the findings to policy makers, digital governance practitioners, the private sector and the public more widely in an accessible way in order to build greater resilience and ensure we don’t unwittingly amplify terrorist content online.
While there is understandably a huge focus on the continent on the use of tech platforms by malign actors to assist with terrorist financing, human trafficking, narcotics and wildlife smuggling and fraud, a deeper study of the content and communications techniques used by terrorists is urgently needed. The research is still largely dominated by the global north (including my excellent alma mater King’s College London which is part of GNET), largely because that is where most of the research funding and expertise resides, but understanding the context in which terrorist operate is crucial to understanding their reach. As many tech watchers across Africa have said before, the continent risks potentially becoming a “wild west” in these types of cybercrimes and content related offences. This is partly because the tech giants spend far less time and effort on governance issues and perhaps because the digital revenues from online advertising in Africa don’t make it worth their while.
One of the key questions engaging researchers is how do malign “actors” i.e violent armed groups, utilise platforms to organise, recruit, radicalise and exhibit terrorist acts for propaganda purposes and then adapt their tactics, techniques and processes – TTPs to use the language of cyber security practitioners – when the platform moderators try to apply countermeasures?
One excellent researcher Folahanmi Aina revealed how Nigeria’s Boko Haram and its affiliates have pivoted away from Facebook, Twitter and even the encrypted messaging platform Telegram , because Nigerian intelligence services had successfully infiltrated those platforms. The favoured messaging platform for Nigeria’s ISIS affiliates in particular Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) would now appear to be Rocket Chat, an integrated messaging service which boasts “Every conversation one platform” enabling rapid dissemination and amplification of content across multiple platforms.
It begs the question how do tech companies and governments disrupt and prevent such terrorist content from spreading whilst not infringing on freedom of speech like the internet shutdowns we’ve seen in settings such as Nigeria (2021). Part of the answer lies in early warning systems and sharing information with facilities such as the Terrorist Content Analytics Platform (TCAP) to gain greater situational awareness, inform policy decisions and co-ordinate crisis responses.
The Christchurch shooting in New Zealand in 2019 is often cited as an example of how big tech companies like Facebook/Meta’s response protocols to violent live streaming incidents were put to the test. There is much we in Africa could learn about how terrorists are weaponizing the internet and growing increasingly sophisticated in their tactics but in order to do this we badly need more research and data.