An example of social media increasing a state’s power is through mass accumulation of information by social media users. An individual can remain anonymous online, through various mechanisms, but Benson (2014) argues this is not necessarily the case. A government, private search engines, and social media companies collect and save users posts and information, which leave “tracks in the snow” where information is spread (13). The tracks allow the government to determine who may be potential threats through conducting mass surveillance campaigns. Due to these surveillance programs, it is easier to infiltrate extremist groups and in some cases, pose as a sympathizer to gain access and collect intelligence.
For example, in the Philippines, Facebook has been widely used as a recruiting mechanism to influence the public’s perception of the Islamic State and similar groups (Shea 2019). Facebook is cheap and easy to use, especially in a place such as the Philippines where 60 million Filipinos have access to the Internet and 97 percent use Facebook alone (Shea 2019). The use of social media as a tool of violent extremism increased once the Marawi Siege occurred in May of 2017. The Philippine government, with help from NGO’s tried to decrease the influence of extremist groups on social media by using their state power to conduct timely and targeted raids when they identify extremist individuals spreading fear as a recruitment strategy that undermined the government. Another way the Filipino government has tried to take back their power is through local “capacity building by promoting digital literacy and critical thinking skills” to help social media users identify fact from fiction and decrease recruitment by extremists (Shea 2019). Young teenagers are easy targets for exploitation because they are often naïve and too trusting of people they meet online. ISIS spreads messages in an “opportunistic and unsophisticated manner” that many youth can relate to; most ISIS posts are typically associated to “confidence and bravado” by posting pictures of weapons and violence that are attractive to young men as a form of recruitment (Shea 2019).
Extremist groups have also been focusing on recruiting university and school-aged individuals through social media, and persuading them to rebel against the Philippine government (Shea 2019). Extremist groups have also focused on undermining the Philippine government through targeting individuals on social media that are outspoken against the Mindanao Peace Agreement and the many villagers who share similar grievances against the government. Extremists have become more strategic in their online recruitment tactics in the Philippines by using “local languages that defy software translations” making it more challenging for the government to detect aggressive language through using traditional security tools (Shea 2019). Private messaging is often used to thwart government surveillance and recruit those who post information that is against the state or sympathizing with the Caliphate (Shea 2019).
Although states have the power to shut down the Internet, conduct mass surveillance programs, infiltrate terrorist organizations and keep authority over its citizens, social media has the ability to erode and undermine state’s control. According to former FBI director Robert Mueller, the Internet provides a hub for “recruiting, training, planning and conducting worldwide violence” on state and non-state actors (Benson 2014, 10). Among the greatest threats to National Security are sympathizers and lone wolf attackers that have access to tutorials that teach loyalists how to build bombs and conduct massacres (Benson 2014). For example, ISIS has been successful in recruiting sympathizers and lone wolf attackers to successfully carry out attacks on western soil such as the Pulse Nightclub and the San Bernardino attacks among many others.
Overall, social media in the twenty-first century has significant influence over state power, and it has managed to erode some government controls over the population. The Philippine example demonstrates how social media increased state power by identifying people who are undermining the government through various forms of violence and expanding digital literacy to combat recruitment efforts. At the same time, social media has become a leading tool for extremist and terrorist organizations, whether recruiting new members to posting tutorials; these new technological advancements threaten the power of a state.
This article was written by Everett Stern from our Tactical Rabbit Reviews series.
- David C. Benson (2014) Why the Internet Is Not Increasing Terrorism, Security Studies, 23:2, 293-328, DOI: 10.1080/09636412.2014.905353
- Shea, Nathan (2019) “Philippines: The Black Flag Flies on Facebook.” The Asia Foundation, 14 Feb. 2019, asiafoundation.org/2019/02/13/philippines-the-black-flag-flies-on-facebook/.
- Viotti, Paul R., and Mark V. Kauppi. International Relations and World Politics. Pearson, 2013.