Terrorists weaponising social media warns report

Terrorists, extremists and organised criminal gangs are using social media and the fears around the COVID pandemic to further their aims according to a new report.

The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) has warned that the groups have been using social media to spread misinformation in an effort to recruit and also further their criminal activities.

In some cases terrorist groups gave sought to use COVID as a “biological weapon urging supporters to deliberately infect other religious or ethnic groups” according to the UNICRI’s Director.

“The COVID-19 crisis has amplified misinformation and disinformation on social media and has created new opportunities for violent non-state actors,” said the UNICRI.  “In recent months UNICRI has detected an exponential increase of malicious use of social media to undermine trust in governments and, at the same time, to reinforce extremist narratives, recruitment strategies and control of the territory by criminal groups.

“Terrorist, violent extremist and organized criminal groups have successfully exploited vulnerabilities in the social media to manipulate people and disseminate conspiracy theories.”

Antonia Marie De Meo UNICRI Director said the pandemic had accelerated the problem.

“Misinformation and disinformation on social media are not new problems, but the COVID-19 crisis has amplified them and created new opportunities for violent non-state actors,” she said. “In recent months we have seen numerous cases of malicious use of social media to undermine trust in governments and, at the same time, to reinforce extremist narratives and recruitment strategies. Terrorist, violent extremist and organized criminal groups have successfully exploited vulnerabilities in the social media ecosystem to manipulate people and disseminate conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19, its mode of transmission and possible cures.

“It is also alarming that some terrorist and violent extremist groups have attempted to misuse social media to incite potential terrorists to intentionally spread COVID-19 and to use it as an improvised form of a biological weapon.”

The report warned COVID has provided an opportunity to terrorism and extremes that they have been quick to exploit.

“Unfortunately, social media has not only been used to bring people closer and to share thoughts and opinions during the crisis, but also to spread false information,” it said. “During the first days of the outbreak, a proliferation of fake news messages about COVID-19 went viral on private groups and messaging apps globally.

“These messages ranged from fake news about the origin of the virus (e.g. ‘the virus was maliciously created in a lab’) or its mode of transmission (e.g. ‘the virus spreads through petrol pumps or the fifth-generation wireless 5G’), to methods of self-diagnoses (e.g. ‘breathe in deeply and hold your breath for 10 seconds’).”

Due to changing behaviours with regard to news consumption and the growth of mobile internet traffic, social media platforms are increasingly becoming the primary source of information for millions of people around the world.

However, the global network of computer-mediated communication (CMC) provided by different social media platforms, its decentralisation and the limited oversight and restriction, have also facilitated the development and spread of false information, according to the report.

“Between January and March 2020, it was identified that 59% of misinformation was created by reconfiguring and recontextualizing information, while 38% was entirely fabricated; in most of the cases, the content was created with cheap and accessible software (“cheap-fakes”) rather than highly technologically manipulated deepfakes,” said the report.

This report explored the role of violent nonstate actors, including terrorist, violent extremist and organized criminal groups, in maliciously using social media during COVID-19 to spread misinformation and disinformation.

“These actors have created and amplified misleading content on a large-scale, by taking advantage of vulnerabilities in the social media ecosystem and by manipulating people through conspiracy narratives and fake news,” it said. “The malicious use of social media by nonstate actors, including terrorist, violent extremist and organized criminal groups is not new, as demonstrated by many past and well documented examples. In the last years, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh) has demonstrated its capacity to use social media to radicalize new affiliates, recruit foreign fighters and raise, move and channel funds. Al-Shabaab has created its first Twitter accounts and used them to provoke the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) and later the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) into long ‘Twitter duels’.

“Several terrorist groups have created special units whose role is to amplify, glorify, and reinforce their messages, while other organizations have used social media to posture and self-promote online.”

Criminals are also using social media to push their activities. Organised criminal groups like the Sinaloa cartel has a Twitter account (@carteidsinaloa) with more than 57,000 followers and the alleged account of El Chapo Guzman has more than half a million followers (@ elchap0guzman), whereas ISIL frequently uses Ansar (helpers) accounts for media distribution, operational coordination, and recruitment.”

The report said the aims might be different but the attraction of social media is uniform.

“Obviously, there are many differences in the strategic objectives of these three groups,” it said. “The right-wing extremists are promoting accelerationist terrorism to cause a race war, accelerate the ‘inevitable’ collapse of society and replace it with a white ethnostate, a state limited to white people. Groups associated with ISIL and Al-Qaida also consider violence as a legitimate tool to advance and impose their values and ideas as they did with ISIL’s ‘caliphate’ proclamation in Iraq.

“Organized criminal groups are engaged in illegal activity not for ideological reasons but rather for profit. However, as it will be shown, there are similarities in the way the three different categories of violent non-state actors have been using social media during the pandemic.”

This report described how terrorist, violent extremist and organized criminal groups are trying to take advantage of the coronavirus disease crisis to expand their activities and jeopardize the efficacy and credibility of governments’ response measures.

The authorities are fighting back with technology being used to combat the rise in disinformation. However, the report warns more neds to be done.

“Although in the last years social media platforms and messaging apps have sought to remove and caution users about suspicious information, increasing flows of misinformation and disinformation complicate this task.

“Of course, technology countermeasures alone are not sufficient to address the on-going problem of the malicious use of social media. In part, this is because such a challenge requires a direct engagement from civil society actors through empowerment measures aimed at increasing basic media literacy as well as critical thinking in approaching online contents. “

It added: “Moreover, violent non-state actors themselves have proven proficient at employing automated technology systems such as non-human accounts or social bots to deploy large-scale disinformation campaigns. As a result, a technological race is emerging between those generating misleading content and those creating solutions to detect it.”