Bruce Sterling on Social Media Jihads

How good are terrorists' Twitter game?

Social media and the Internet itself have steadily amplified humanity's noblest and basest sides. While much of the latter is confined to the so-called dark web or deep web, radical jihadist groups such as ISIS and, to a lesser degree, AQAP, have utilized Twitter and other platforms for propaganda and recruitment.

Although Twitter has managed to remove somewhere around 18,000 ISIS-related accounts since the fall of 2014, an unknown number of direct or sympathetic jihadi accounts remain (estimated 250,00-300,000 by J.M. Berger of Intelwire.com).

The Austin Chronicle conducted an email interview with author, futurist, and all-around "visionary-in-residence" (wherever he resides, which is Austin during SXSW) Bruce Sterling to get his unique take on the use of social media by radical jihadi groups, chief among them ISIS.


Austin Chronicle: Do you foresee any way that social media can control, or censor, masses of individuals like ISIS and thus blunt their message? Or do you believe that this sort of online asymmetrical warfare and propagandizing is inherently a permanent part of online reality given the Internet's ever-growing size and accessibility?

Bruce Sterling: Twitter isn't a "permanent situation." Twitter won't be around forever, and the start-up Twitter of Arab Spring uprising was a different thing than the modern Twitter that's swarming with international spooks, cops, informants, harassers, stalkers, and double agents.

Realistically speaking, there isn't any way to "censor ISIS," because "ISIS" is just an acronym that's loosely attached to millions of freaked-out Sunni ethnics. They're called ISIS, they're ISIL, they're Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the Caliphate, and a lot of 'em are foreign adventurers who showed up for the girls, gold, and glory. They can call themselves anything they want.

ISIS leaders are armed ethnic warlords with quite a lot of oil money. People are gonna kill ISIS because they want those oil wells back, not because ISIS is sort-of okay at social media and pushing viral atrocity videos.

AC: With the advent of the Internet of Things, do you foresee even more opportunities for radical terrorist groups to wreak havoc on the West?

BS: Well, yeah, sorta. There's this useful concept that computer security guys call "the attack surface." Every time you hook more insecure gadgets together, there's more "attack surface" exposed, and that technically means, sure, somebody could do something wicked.

But: big deal. When terrorists want to "wreak havoc on the West" they just stroll into a fancy French magazine office with a bunch of automatic rifles. They blow up a Boston sporting event with homemade bombs. It's cheaper, faster, and more effective than sci-fi schemes to hack Google's Nest thermostats.

When you're a top terrorist, you don't really want to "wreak havoc" anyway. Mostly, you want to create a failed state, a place like Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, where you can take over at gunpoint and live it up in the narcotics, weapons, and oil biz. Radical terrorists are doing great at that work. They defeated and destroyed the "New World Order" of the Bush Administration, there's just not much order around now.

AC: Best guess: What do you think is the ratio of ISIS's online followers who are actively participating in boots-on-ground violence to people like the "Cyber-Caliphate Lizard Squad" who appear (for now) to be in it for some pro-ISIS lulz?

BS: The ratio there is about a thousand to one. Lizard Squad is probably fewer than 20 hackers in half a dozen countries, and probably four of them are doing most of the Lizard lulz activities. Lizard Squad are not Arabs, and they're not even pro-ISIS, they just like to freak out the straights with that hot-button.

There are some pretty good, serious, full-time cyberwar outfits in the Middle East, especially including the Syrian Electronic Army, the Iranian Cyber War Headquarters, and Mossad, but they all hate ISIS. If anybody could take down ISIS by pushing function keys, ISIS would have been toast years ago.

AC: On the face of it, the U.S. appears to be lagging in combatting ISIS and affiliated groups online. Last month's CentCom social takedown by the Lizard Squad was a notable egg-on-the-face for the U.S. How can the U.S. up its game? Or has it done so already and we aren't privy to that information/propaganda?

BS: Well, the U.S. problem is that even though the Americans spy on everything, the Americans drink their own bathwater, they refuse to catch on about modern global political realities. So it doesn't matter how much data the U.S. military or U.S. intelligence has: They attack the wrong people for made-up reasons and they're also [a] terribly ineffective occupation power.

ISIS exists now because the U.S. military already blew away Iraq's Sunni armies, militias, and terrorist groups, again and again. The U.S. knows everything, but the U.S. can't pacify the malcontents because they can't run the country. The USA is pretty hard put to run its own country. It doesn't matter how much the NSA briefs Tea Party guys in the Congress. The U.S. Congress ignores all evidence and believes anything it wants to believe.

The basic U.S. cybersecurity problem hasn't changed one bit since 9/11. The feds come up with all kinds of ingenious schemes, the private sector gets wind of the potential regulation, they buy off a few congressmen, and the whole scheme collapses. The business just doesn't want any security regulation: It's a drag and it costs too much. The U.S. can't even fix its own theft-riddled credit card system. The experts are very knowledgeable, but the installed base defends itself from repair, pretty much like U.S. banks do.

AC: Is the whole ISIS media outreach campaign – including Al Hayat and the Twitter/YouTube "mujatweets" – simply an ongoing annoyance or distraction from the complex and costly reality of a military mobilization against the radical jihadis? Or is this the new normal vis-à-vis quelling terrorist groups?

BS: Well, ISIS is not the "new normal." They're weird, and the real "new normal" is old-school Marxist terrorists like the Kurds getting patted on the head by everybody because, although the Kurds are terrible, at least they're not so crazy that they blow themselves up.

ISIS aren't particularly strong, they're just particularly horrible. They kill hostages and journalists and military captives, but most of the guys ISIS are killing are rebel Moslem militias who everybody would have called "terrorists" back in peaceful, civilized 1989. The new normal is terror-versus-terror, with some drones puttering overhead. It's really awful to be Syrian, Iraqi, Kurdish now. It's worse than Yugoslavia.

AC: What about Assad's Syrian Electronic Army?

BS: Assad's people are winning. Rumor says that the SEA used to be the Assad family's computer-user group, just the regime's geeky cool-kids. I dunno what the SEA are gonna do as alleged victors in a country they blew apart with barrel-bombs. Obviously winning the civil war is far better than being beheaded by ISIS, but of all the cyberwar geek crews I'm aware of, these former regime gilded-youth have had the toughest, bloodiest, hardest struggle. The SEA are hard, bitter, intelligent, sophisticated malefactors who don't owe anybody any favors. No matter what they might do to the rest of us, I'm sure they figure we have it coming.

AC: Any further thoughts or predictions on this subject?

BS: I find the Ukraine and Novorussia thing more significant than the Middle East, which has been bad a long time, and is staying bad in the same basic way. The Ukraine situation is like the 1990s Yugoslavia breakup, but with social media. The new authoritarian Russian and pro-Russian Internet is really big and interesting; the new Russian Internet is super-popular with everyday Russians; they think the West has lost its mind and they're embracing Russian social media as if it were some newfangled Orthodox religious revival machine.

People don't realize that the old-fashioned global Internet of the 90s is segregating into radicalized filter-bubbles, but it is, and fast. People are used to the Free World idea, they think the huddles masses behind the Chinese Firewall and the new Russian firewalls want to get out and be rich and happy at the West's shopping mall. But the Chinese, Russians, and even the Greeks tried that, they don't like it, and that's not what is happening any more. Something new is happening.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

SXSW Interactive 2015, social media, ISIS, Bruce Sterling, Lizard Squad

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