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06/08/2020 The Communication Science magazine

Radical, Bro: How African Militant Groups Use Social Media

RAND Europe did research on how African militant groups make use of social media. How and where do they publish content and what can those platforms do about it?


Some DIY enthusiasts do not merely make new creations out of base materials, but go above and beyond by repurposing existing objects. For example, it is possible for one to convert old belts into a lawn chair, just as Pinterest user Second Chance Inc. has shared with the world. In similar fashion, one can find that there are many alternative usages of normal things that are used in everyday life.

Social media have grown to serve the purpose of making the world smaller. Most people use social media in order to maintain connections with family and friends, especially if they live far away. However, in the same vein as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there is a darker nature that lies within the heart of social media. In recent years, social media has been increasingly been taken advantage of by militant groups such as Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and ISIL. These groups use social media to promote their acts of terror and attract recruits not only from within their borders, but also internationally.

For example, while the average parent may upload a commemorative video of their child’s first steps on YouTube, Boko Haram has used it in the past to announce the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls and post footage of gruesome executions. Where one would use Facebook to reconnect with old high school classmates, ISIL would treat it as a platform through which to draft potential members.

Commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Centre for Africa, a study released by RAND Europe in November 2018 shows clearly the unbridled power of social media in the hands of these lethal forces. Using a mixed-methods approach accompanied by a Twitter big data analysis, RAND Europe’s study dissects the correlation between social media use and online radicalisation in seven African countries: Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. The study primarily focuses on the groups of Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and ISIL. It discusses three main points: African social media trends that contribute to online radicalization, existing counter-radicalization interventions, and the implications for the improvement and future design of such interventions.

RAND Europe has found that all three groups use social media as part of their propaganda and recruitment purposes. They use social media to criticize opposition and display what they are capable of, such as the Boko Haram kidnapping. However, out of the three groups, ISIL has the most sophisticated online strategy. ISIL utilizes the largest variety of social media platforms, from mainstream sites such as Facebook and Twitter, to less common networks KiK and justpaste.it. It has been found that online influence is also supplemented by “offline” influences such as religious leaders in order to convert members to these groups. A good example of this, albeit fictional, can be seen in the Dutch drama film Layla M., where a Moroccan-Dutch teenage girl is gradually radicalized both by online and “offline” influences, ultimately eloping to Jordan with a jihadist.

On the bright side, mainstream social media sites have taken some action to shut down accounts, and more activity has had to move to private channels as a result. Additionally, the vast unpredictability of the Internet has posed a challenge for groups like al-Shabaab. It seems that leaders find it difficult to maintain control, as online activity becomes increasingly decentralized and independent jihadists interfere with group dynamic.

The Twitter big data analysis dealt with over 220,000 Tweets on specific dates between 2012 and 2017. The analysis revealed much uncertainty amongst Twitter users as they were unsure of the validity of news that they found on social media. It showed that the salience of media coverage of major attacks by these militant groups was often greater than the online communication of the militant groups themselves.

Unfortunately, the seven African governments have only recently recognized online radicalization as an issue, with subsequent but limited responses. Although there are strategies to deal with preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE), online radicalization has not been sufficiently addressed. However, RAND Europe also identifies ways for African countries to move forward in the future. It recommends the development of national strategies by each government to counter online radicalization, with programmes that are specific to the local context. The governments should also collaborate in order for their collective knowledge to further streamline the process of P/CVE on the Internet.

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