Study: Social Media Proves Great Marketing Tool for Terrorists

By Steve Anderson May 15, 2014

Social media marketing is a valuable part of the overall marketing landscape. Businesses use it to keep in touch with potential customers, especially when new products or services are released. It's also an excellent channel for users to register rapid feedback about the good and bad points of a customer experience, as well as a means to offer special promotions, like coupons or other discounts. But as a recent study from the Woodrow Wilson Center's DC Commons Lab showed, social media is proving to be a winner for marketing terrorism as well.

According to the study in question, several terrorist groups had reportedly moved an online presence to several major social media outlets, including standards like Facebook and YouTube, as well as Instagram and Twitter. The author of the report on terrorists on social media, University of Haifa professor of communication Gabriel Weimann, noted that one of the biggest potential draws for terrorists was the potential for anonymity, as well as its overall reach in being able to seek recruits or simply raise funds. Reports also suggest that social media can be used as a training tool for terrorist concepts like how to make a bomb at home. Weimann further noted that the use of such contact points in terrorism is on the rise; in 1998, for example, there were only 12 terrorist-related websites available. Now, that number is almost 10,000, and that's leaving out social media presence.

So why the movement? Weimann notes several key points, including the fact that social media has always been popular with young people, and that's a critical recruiting point for any organization, terrorism included. Since social media networks are generally up—even Twitter was running during the “Arab Spring” protests despite efforts to block it—and running. Their reliable nature allows for easier access regardless of schedules, and access to social networks is commonly free, which is always valuable for any organization watching its cash flow.

Despite all this, however, Weimann notes that blocking terrorist activity online may actually prove to be more hindrance than help, and instead, governments should look to monitor such activity and attempt to derive information from it. Indeed, Weimann points to the Al-Shebab terrorist group, who was removed from Twitter shortly after an attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya. But the group was back on Twitter within days, making the overall effectiveness of such blocking measures somewhat questionable in the end.

It makes some sense here to suggest that. While it's not out of line to want to see terrorist groups banned from the Internet as a whole, it's the kind of thing—particularly to privacy and free speech wonks—that can rapidly turn into a slippery slope sort of affair, where clear terrorist groups like Al-Shebab are banned today, but tomorrow perhaps someone else is instead, like, say, the Tea Party. When banning starts, where does it stop, and how far do we go in maintaining such a ban? Is it better to try banning, even if it doesn't work well, or is it better to allow said groups to operate and learn from that operation?

The same tools that make social media marketing valuable to brick-and-mortar retailers makes it just as valuable to terrorism, and trying to keep terrorism out of the picture may require methods we'd rather not use, ultimately. Still, it's an issue with a lot of difficult twists involved, and choosing the right path to go may prove much easier said than done in the end.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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