On Sunday, Da’esh supporters on Telegram began circulating links to Amaq and Nashir pages found on a social network start-up out of San Francisco called Baaz.
What does this mean? I do not think this is a sign that Da’esh supporters will be flocking to a new platform, rather I believe it is a sign that supporters are still actively innovating ways to reach a larger audience. This is important as Telegram is not social media, and the larger platforms have measures in place that make it difficult for supporters to maintain accounts. However, networks like Baaz offer interesting options to a movement that is struggling.
What is Baaz?
Per its website Baaz “is a next generation social media platform created with a multi-national audience in mind. By using powerful analytics, trend analysis, and advanced natural language processing technology, our platform provides relevant and reliable news and information to users worldwide.” What this signifies is that Baaz offers a social network consolidation service that streamlines your experience on all social media platforms you belong to into one location. You can link all your social media accounts from a pool of 220 they support. Further, by gathering data on an individual from all their connected social networks their “natural language processing (NLP) algorithm surfaces trending stories within a subject, location, or community in English or Arabic.” From a perspective of spreading propaganda this provides some interesting opportunities to a movement like Da’esh.
Other interesting features of this service is the “Baaz Discussion” to create you own personal discussion networks of those who you want to follow. This echoes the channel function of Telegram however spread across multiple platforms as there is a universal share function within Baaz, whereby with one click you can share across multiple networks at once, which also ensures consistency across all your platforms you are sharing to.
Now what this implies is not that Baaz is the next frontier for Da’esh and its supporters, rather it is a possible direction they are looking to go and highlights challenges we will face as a community that looks to combat terrorism, extremism and hate speech. From an efficiency perspective, this service and similar services offer powerful means of spreading propaganda rapidly and efficiently. Even if you account does not survive the golden hour prior to deletion by platform like Facebook and Twitter, it can act as an efficient launching pad, though this remains to be seen. Ultimately Da’esh is experimenting at the moment and I expect they will keep doing so to find the next tool they will use. As the ground war continues to push forward, what will be done about the digital caliphate?
What I would like to highlight is that this does not mean all supporters will flock to this new app, it does not offer encryption, does not offer secure messaging and as of this morning Baaz had taken down the Amaq and Nashir profiles. Rather, what I have noticed that Amaq and Nashir have been experimenting with different platforms from which to share their official news reports. These reports are not necessarily targeted only at supporters but to non-supporters and the media as well who have adopted a trend of sharing these online (I have been guilty of this myself, as many of us have) for educational purposes or for news reporting. Da’esh is looking to use the power of web 2.0, to continually get its message out to anyone who is willing to hear. In particular, we have a responsibility as civil society to respond to this by not sharing their propaganda, by not over reacting to every police operation and assuming it is a terrorist attack. We need to change the way we consume media and how we present media online. Until we change our personal behaviours tech will be leveraged against us by those who wish to do so (this goes beyond terrorist orgs.) Just some food for thought.
A question I have been asked frequently over the past few months is one concerning encryption. This discussion is not new as the use of encryption raises security, economic, and human right considerations. Of interest to my research is how encryption impacts security and human rights. Security and human rights are mutually reinforcing, therefore when looking to approach the problem of the use of encryption by terrorists’ organizations like Da’esh it is important to keep in mind the complex interplay between security and human rights concerns and avoid favouring one interest above another. The resolution of this issue cannot be done in absolute terms the support only a security perspective as has been proposed by many Nations directly impacted by terrorist attacks.
Organizations like Da’esh and its supporters use the Internet for a wide range of purposes: recruitment, financing activities, propaganda, training, planning, and incitement to commit acts of terrorism. All of these are things are occurring at some level in spaces that are encrypted, we can all agree that these elements need to be prevented. However the means to this end is where the problem lies.
One of the first means that were used were the limiting of the spaces these individuals and groups in habited. It is widely known that when social media platforms began taking down official and pro-Da’esh accounts. For a while Da’esh was able to adapt but in the long run they were no longer able to enjoy the general freedom of operation online they had at their inception. As J.M. Berger stated in his newly released ICCT report, “As of March, the median Arabic-language account openly supporting IS on Twitter had about 14 followers and could only stay online for about a day before being suspended.”
The result of shutting down these accounts on open facing social media platforms was a shift towards encrypted communications and platforms that were not shutting down their accounts as effectively. WhatsApp, Telegram, Surespot should sound familiar to you, as these apps have all been featured in reporting of many of the terrorists’ attacks committed by Da’esh in the past year. Some political leaders and police forces have called for “decryption” or “backdoors” as there have been concerns that have been raised about terrorists “going dark”, making it difficult to investigate or lawfully listen in on conversations of individuals of interests and therefore ultimately inhibit the ability to uncover criminal activities or terrorist plots. Alternatively, some experts argue that creating keys to encryption apps or backdoors could compromise the Internet for all of us users if nefarious actors would gain and take advantage of the access created to encrypted apps by government agencies (as wannacry has shown even the NSA cannot guarantee these keys will not be compromised by external agents).
One point I would like to highlight that is often left out of this discussion is the Human rights proponent, in particular the need to protect individual privacy and to avoid adverse impacts on freedom of expression and association. I know if one simply consumes the daily news they probably have a grim perspective as it pertains to the imminence of potential terrorist attacks and how they have been using encryption to communicate and plan attacks. Though this is true in some cases, this represents only a minute percentage of what encryption is being used for. However the use of encryption is not only negative, it has been used to protect and enable individuals and groups. Let us use Telegram as a case study for a moment:
In my research I have had the opportunity to examine this from multiple lenses and perspectives and it is difficult to answer this question. Personally, I seek to do what I can to prevent terrorism and violent extremism. However, I don’t think we any nation should have a backdoor to encrypted communications. The risk to human rights, the risk to individuals in vulnerable situations outweighs the security risks, in my personal opinion (I know many would disagree). Governments have many tools at their disposals to protect their citizens, and if they honestly want to most states can bypass encryption through human intelligence or via cyberattacks, we do not need to give them a universal key. Individuals, on the other hand, are limited in what tools they have at their disposal to protect their human rights. As it pertains to the security risks posed by groups like Da’esh, I believe there is much more government (at home, bilaterally and multilaterally), private corporations, CSOs/NGOs and individuals can do to prevent violent extremism and terrorism. We all have a role to play, one that is continually changing as the threats evolve. I do not have a magic solution, but like many I am doing my best to understand the issue and find out what can be done.