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The 21st century has seen mankind evolve in leaps and bounds. This progress owes much to the age of digitalization and ICT revolution. Content in any form travels at a lightning speed and the virality of ideas catches on in a blink of an eye. Simultaneously living in parallel realities, each one of us is now equipped with the most terrifyingly liberating tool  mankind has ever laid eyes on – the Internet.

Instrumental in civil movements and uprisings across the globe – from Tunisia to Wall Street, newfound technologies have changed perceptions worldwide. A partially explored territory so far, ICTs not only possess immense potential for the positive economic development of nations; time is also witness to its exploitation. Conventional warfare that has been raging on for years in the physical world has found its way into virtual space manifested in many forms – anonymously and otherwise.

We are living in the age of digital terrorism, where propaganda is used to harness fear, that is, digitally. Social media has provided a platform for myriads of voices unheard of before, unleashing an influx of unbridled individual autonomy. While the democratization of the web has paved the way for exercising civil liberties, it has also given rise to its abuse. On the one hand, the element of anonymity on social media has influenced negative social behavior such as trolling or even hate speech; on the other, it has become fertile ground for rapid recruitments for terrorist organizations.

Jean-Paul-Laborde

Speaking at the World Economic Forum MENA conference held in Jordan, Jean-Paul Laborde, Executive Director of CTED and Assistant Secretary-General UN, commented: “The use of ICTs by terrorist organizations has really changed the scope and dynamics of the problem as well as the usual way of thinking. Before, the negative use of ICTs could have been likened to difficulties faced by member states, now the issue is its use by terrorist organizations such as Daesh.”

Talking about the importance of countering digital terrorism, Laborde identified the magnitude of dissemination of negative messaging primarily through social media. He said: “Terrorist organizations are directly connected to organized crime. Yes, encryption is used by many people, organizations, states, and enterprises, but it is also used by terrorist structures.” Adding, he said: “The horrible issue of hate speech is promoted by terrorist organizations through ICTs. There is a line separating propaganda and freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.”

Modern-day terrorist groups as well as individuals are not only tech-savvy but are also fully aware of the power of new media. At the same time, these entities are also conscious of the limitations of governments’ reach in the borderless realm of the virtual world.

At the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism held by the Obama administration in February 2015, it was reported (by CNN): “ISIS, in particular, has proven virulent in using technology to radicalize. It has mobilized armies of online followers to engage audiences in ways that take advantage of the decentralized and open nature of the Internet, leveraging online tools such as Twitter, Facebook, Ask.fm, Kik, SoundCloud and Instagram, to name just a few. Indeed, in a single day this past summer, ISIS supporters sent out some 40,000 tweets, and supporters often repetitively tweeted specific hashtags at particular times of day to maximize message trending. ISIS also has strategically run hashtag campaigns to tap into trending topics on Twitter, such as the World Cup and Ebola, which have nothing to do with violent extremism. ISIS-linked extremists have used social media to focus group messages, disseminate ideological simulator games, and broadcast high production videos, and the group has created its own technologies, including a smartphone app released last year that amplifies its messaging campaigns.”

UnknownDiscussing the terrorist situation at the WEF MENA conference, Richard Stengel, US Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, said: “The information battlefield is a different type of warfare. While the actual location of battle is a place for governments, the virtual world is not a place for them. Part of Daesh’s success it that they use the David and Goliath narrative. Our collective response – governments and non-government entities – contribute to their own narrative. Isil is not creating a market for jihadists, they are actually exploiting the market by tapping into grievances such as the unhappiness, lack of autonomy etc., of people, especially in the Arab world.”

Stengel noted that Daesh’s audience is relatively small, with 800 to 2,000 ‘fanboys’ of the organization. “The 1.5 billion Muslim population can easily drown out ISIL’s voice but we have to help mobilize that.” He further remarked: “Governments are not the answer here. They are the worst messengers out there. This is a larger issue of weaponization of information – not only in the Middle East but all over the world, and we need to combat it collectively.”

Case in point, Pakistan’s Cyber Crime Bill furore. According to the Human Rights Watch: “Pakistani lawmakers should reject a new cybercrime prevention bill which contains provisions which threaten rights of privacy and freedom of expression. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act bill neither protects the public from legitimate online security concerns nor respects fundamental human rights,” said Phelim Kine, Asia Division Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch. “In its present form, Pakistan’s cybercrime prevention bill will instead institutionalize unacceptable violations of basic rights with a thin veneer of legality.”

Striking a balance between privacy and security is crucial to counter-digital terrorism. Cyber attacks are multi-tiered and it would be foolhardy to suppose that it can be dealt with through single-layered operations.

As Laborde remarked during the WEF MENA conference: “We have this proverbial saying amongst the judicial community in France that too many laws kill the law! It is important to have a counter narrative, have priorities and distribute them accordingly because, essentially, there is a general mistrust in governments. Switching of the media doesn’t solve the problem. It is a multidimensional issue that needs to be addressed by dividing responsibilities among stakeholders: the public and private sectors, media and, most importantly, civil societies.”

Explicitly identifying the difference between freedom of speech and hate speech, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights can indeed be used as a blueprint to systematically deal with acts of digital terror.

The need of the hour in each country as well as internationally is to create an impartial task force or a coalition of stakeholders, especially social media companies – for what happens; according to Stengel, in the battlefields is the direct consequence of what happens in the cyberspace.

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