Monday, December 7, 2015

Role of Social Media in Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan and the World at large

After the deadly terrorist attacks in California, USA last week and possible involvement of a married couple whose family roots were traced back to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it is high time for Pakistan Government to realize and take concrete steps to take practical steps to put an end to extremism and terrorism in the country. Last year after the devastating attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School on December 16, 2014, where the Taliban killed more than 130 children, military and political leaders formed a National Action Plan to counter terrorism. One point in the 20-point plan called for the formation of a committee to counter online terrorism, in a country estimated to have nearly 30 million Internet users.
Obviously, much of the effort should be focused on ground clean-up operations; however cyber space would also be part of the larger counter- terror landscape in this regard.   
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) have been taking action against pages on social media and online videos posted by terrorist groups. There are approximately 60 banned organizations in Pakistan, according to the National Internal Security Policy (NISP) document. Recently the federal government has been reluctant to confirm a reported ban on Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), but news reports say that the ban is part of the National Action Plan. The Twitter account of JUD chief Hafiz Saeed was suspended two months ago but the organization’s website can still be accessed and Twitter accounts with his name still exist.  US Government has declared JuD as a terrorist organization still #JuD and #HafizSaeed have not been banned by US Government or Twitter.

Nation States and Social media companies should cooperate on war footing to eliminate content traces of terrorism and hate speech on the web
According to security analyst Ahmed Rashid,  “Social media is a very big part of recruitment in the West. In Pakistan it helps produce a point of view amongst those on Twitter and other such sites but doesn’t have the power to recruit.” Rashid says that access to social media is limited in Pakistan, as opposed to more developed societies in Europe where there are huge online followings.
Globally, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is strengthening its grip by recruiting online. “Look at our online numbers, this isn’t our main problem,” says Farieha Aziz, Director at Bolo Bhi, a Karachi based nonprofit geared towards digital security privacy.  “Blocking sites will not solve any problem as terrorists just recreate new accounts. This is just a face saving measure for the government.” Aziz emphasizes the need for a multi-dimensional approach to deal with social media. “The mechanism requires a lot of thought and we are not even talking about it.”
Aziz believes that the Pakistani government should be focused on disseminating a cogent counter narrative. It needs to come up with its own websites that explain a peaceful version of religion to provide a “soft” alternative to extremist views.
A recent news report in The Guardian says that the U.K. “is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and the use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.” The Israeli and U.S. militaries already have similar teams. The Guardian continues: “Against a background of 24-hour news, smartphones, and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the new British brigade will attempt to control the narrative.  Soldiers with journalism skills and familiarity with social media are among those being sought.”
“Psychological-ops or unconventional warfare is fairly common now. But the danger of that is that it can be propagandist when it’s run by state institutions,” says Aziz. “For example, Israeli IDF has a Twitter account and uses it to valorize its soldiers or promote a particular view on the Gaza conflict. Then locally, DG ISPR also has a Twitter account.” Aziz adds that while this can be one way of putting information out there, or countering certain views you have identified, it is just one perspective. There may be others. “There aren’t just banned outfits but also people who may not be militants but they are either sympathetic towards them or subscribe to and promote their views. And this does need to be tackled and it can’t just be done by blocking. You block one page or account and another will be created almost immediately.”
Aziz says she feels the country is still figuring out how to respond to online extremism and needs to “sift through situations and come up with adequate, proportionate and effective responses.”
The Pakistani government has banned some websites but no concerted effort has been made to block all terrorist sites. The government has blocked access to YouTube and pornographic sites. It regularly shuts down websites run by the Tehriki-i-Taliban, which quickly reemerges with new ones. However, experts say that an online government policy will be severely crippled without corresponding or supporting action in the offline world. Many mosques deliver inflammatory preaching and propagate extreme views, clerics breed sectarianism and fatwas are often issued against minority Shia. Part of the government’s strategy in countering terrorism is to take steps that show tangible progress. That means monitoring – if not completely ending – public sermons that spread hate and eventually find their way on social media in the form of brazen video messages and clips.
Onus on the Social Media Companies

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube also have a greater role to play in countering violent extremism in terms of helping Law Enforcement and regulatory authorities in Islamic countries to ban and regulate social media technologies.
Until recently, Facebook has been asking clients to report abusive or objectionable accounts amongst its 1.5 billion users. YouTube has given roughly 200 people and organizations the ability to “flag” up to 20 YouTube videos at once. That includes the U.K. Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit which has been using its “super flagger” authority to seek reviews—and removal—of videos it considers extremist.
The volume of material on social-media sites is a challenge. Some 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. The online-video site doesn’t remove videos itself, waiting for users to flag content as objectionable. The site has had a “promotes terrorism” flag for several years. It hasn’t changed this approach recently, according a person familiar with the situation.
More importantly, US President has recently urged tech companies to take the lead in eliminating the objectionable hate material from the web.
Positive Counter – Terrorism Initiatives on Social Media

It is universally acknowledged that benefits of using Social media to the detriment of terrorists are far greater than those favoring them

Recently, besides all negative impacts, users on Twitter and Facebook have also come up with lot of good work in counter terrorism efforts. Plenty of Hashtags like # End – Terrorism, # Close –Terrorist- Factories, # I-am-not-a terrorist have been developed by people to support counter- terror thought and drive.   Similarly, Facebook is also got plenty of pages that reflect how people are gathering efforts to curb the menace in the country.

This ying-yang should continue to defeat the evil and promote the good to make the world a better and peaceful place.


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