dogs of war

Words and images can be as powerful as bombs. To a certain extent, the fight of governments against the Islamic State (IS) is a ‘communications arms race’. Technology is advancing at an astonishing pace. How can we ensure that we do not fall behind?

A chubby toddler proudly aims a machine gun at us, a tiny tot decapitates her cuddly toy and a ten-year-old child liquidates a soldier; the IS’s images never miss their target. Spread via social media, they are often at least as powerful as firearms. They lodge in the minds of friend and foe and manipulate and incite or, alternatively, demoralize, as intended.

A major difference between al-Qaeda and IS terrorists is that the latter are ?digital natives? who have a better understanding of the power of social media. Whether they sow fear with decapitated heads or reap empathy with likeable cat-stroking fighters, IS ?storytellers? are a match for the marketing strategists of many a multinational. A good ?internet fighter? is as valuable to the IS as an experienced sniper.

IS ?storytellers? are a match for the marketing strategists of many a multinational

Social Bots

Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are very important to the IS as they can be used to manipulate young people who are susceptible to radical ideas with biased information. This is increasingly taking place with accounts operated by machines rather than by people, using computer programs designed to communicate with people and known as ?social bots?.

These bots make large-scale manipulation via social media much easier. Social platforms could play a greater role in combating radicalization but are only used on a very small scale to this end. However, the European Commission has recently agreed with Microsoft, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter that hate-mongering content should be removed within 24 hours, provided citizens report it.

Private platforms are also playing a bigger role in the information race between the IS and western governments. Encrypted apps like Signal and WhatsApp enable communication out of sight of government intelligence services. Games which are popular among young people, such as Grand Theft Auto (a game in which you can crash into police officers), give the IS the opportunity to appeal to precisely the right target group in a domestic circle. And the Dark Web, in hidden parts of the internet, is used, among other things, to acquire exit documents without being seen and, furthermore, contribute money to the caliphate anonymously.

From science to weapon

Many well-intended new media technologies change into weaponry as soon as they fall into criminal hands. Here are three present-day examples: Social Bots
In 1950, Alan Turing developed the Turing test, which tests whether a machine can be distinguished from a human. Since then, scientists have taken big strides in developing computer programs which can communicate convincingly with people. Social bots, which are used by both commercial companies and criminals, originate from these programs. Companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon invest billions in self-learning versions which gradually become more and more intelligent.

1. The Dark Web

Drugs, weapons trade, child porn and identity theft; anything that cannot bear the light of day can be found on the Dark Web. It can be accessed using special software, which can be downloaded by anyone, and users can do what they like on it anonymously. The Dark Web ,as part of the ?Deep Web?, is a version of the internet which was originally set up for the American navy to hold consultations in secret but which terrorist organizations, like the IS, are currently quite happy to use for their own ends.

2. Virtual Reality

At first reality simulation technologies based on software, and sometimes special glasses, were primarily used to train pilots, doctors and soldiers. In the 1990s, however, the gaming industry stole the idea. The Oculus Rift is a state-of-the-art device which enables users to imagine themselves in a totally different context. Experts fear that terrorists will use this type of equipment to train fighters. The IS is already using war games and gamification in its communication and publicity for recruiting fighters.

3. The role of the government

The government is aware of the significant role these technologies play in radicalization processes. Given the speed with which technological developments in the fields of encryption and artificial intelligence are succeeding one another, this role can only grow.

However, the intelligence services, police and politicians do not have the expertise or legal power to intervene. Well-meant Hollywood-type videos with alternative stories make absolutely no impression in the face of the deluge of ?reality TV? from IS. Twittering politicians do not have the authority to exert any serious influence online. For every site taken off the air, ten new ones appear. And the use of wiretapping technologies and censure by the government is met by social and legal resistance.

TNO is following these developments closely and, together with the authorities and private parties, is looking for the best practices and measures to combat them. Although simple solutions are not just there for the picking, TNO feels that citizens can do far more to produce dissenting opinions. And parents, police and schools should get more actively involved in the internet behaviour of young people so that radicalization is recognized in time.

Technology is advancing at an astonishing pace. The government must invest in knowledge and expertise in the fields of new media, encryption and artificial intelligence to prevent us from falling behind. Only if the government, industry and knowledge centres, such as TNO, jointly work on these problems, will the Netherlands be able to block the terrorists’ path in this communications race and beat them at their own game.

This article is based on an interview with TNO’s Arnout de Vries.

Source: TNO Time

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