You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 21: Selling Terrorism Online

Selling Terrorism Online

Over the past two decades, the roles of social media and other digital technologies have evolved. What started as a means of communication among friends quickly snowballed into tools for business, activism, and more. But these new technologies have also been used by terrorists for malicious purposes.

Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin, founding director of SIS’s Center for Security, Innovation, and New Technology (CSINT), joins Big World to discuss how the Internet and social media have impacted terrorism and counterterrorism strategies. She gives us the background on new technology developments during the Fourth Industrial Revolution (1:45) and tells us why this new technology is unprecedented (2:46).

How have digital technologies affected the strategies of terrorists and other rogue actors (5:43)? Cronin explains how terrorists use tactics similar to those used by online marketers (9:00). She also provides insights on whether the trend of social media organizing helps or hurts democracies and democratic interests (16:12) and how governments use social media and digital technologies to combat rogue actors (18:16).

Is social media good or bad for people and society? We end the podcast with Cronin’s response to this existential question that social media tends to provoke (24:00).

During our “Take Five” segment, Cronin shares what five policies she would institute to influence the future of digital technologies and security (13:18).

0:00      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. If I were to sum up the history of social media since 2000, it could go something like this: started as a lark, became a tool for business, turned into a scapegoat for all that's wrong with society. But beyond the thought pieces about the place of social media in society lies a darker possibility. Social media can be the vector for the destruction of lives through the actions of terrorists. Today, we're talking about how the Internet and social media have impacted terrorism and counterterrorism.

0:46      KS: I'm Kay summers, and I'm joined by Audrey Kurth Cronin. Audrey is a professor here in the School of International Service and founding director of the Center for Security, Innovation, and New Technology. Audrey is an expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, security policy, and emerging technologies and their implications for security. Her most recent book is Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow's Terrorists, which made Foreign Affairs' list of best books of 2019. Audrey, thank you for joining Big World.

1:17      Audrey Kurth Cronin: It's pleasure. Thank you Kay for inviting me.

1:19      KS: And congratulations on the success of your latest book. I was glad to see it on that year-end best list.

1:24      AKC: Thank you.

1:25      KS: Audrey, scholars and pundits broadly agree that we are in the fourth industrial revolution, and some of those scholars and pundits have said that there are aspects of today's technology that are considered unprecedented. First off, to get us all started, what is the fourth industrial revolution, and how is it different from the first three?

1:45      AKC: Well, the fourth industrial revolution is a term that is a little bit loose. I think that it incorporates technologies that are digitally connected. So not just information technologies and the Internet But also technologies that are connected through those networks. That includes robotics—everything from UAVs, social media, traditional internet-connected information tools but also the physical things, weapons and devices and appliances of the Internet of things. All of those are part of the fourth industrial revolution.

2:24      KS: Do you agree that technology today in this fourth industrial revolution is unprecedented? If so, in what ways is it unprecedented? Are we talking about the sheer mechanical achievements that power the technology or about the ways that technology affects our society in a broader sense or something else altogether?

2:46      AKC: Well, there are ways in which it's unprecedented in ways in which it is not. I know that's a typical academic's answer, but it's actually true. There are a lot of things about our technologies that are a part of this fourth industrial revolution that are not new. The technologies that we're dealing with today are actually pretty old. Most of them were the result of basic research that was done in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, and then they were shared in the 1990s. For example, the Internet came out of ARPANET, which was a governmental built net. The GPS is a very old technology. Google search engine was built on an NSF grant. The US government, in particular, played an enormous role in developing the basic research for virtually all of the major technologies that we're dealing with today. All the elements of your smartphone, for example, the microchips, the touchscreens, the voice activated systems. These are all pretty old technologies that have just been shared. That's what comes to the next point, which is what's new.

3:47      AKC: What's new is the scale and the scope and the degree to which there's open access to all of these technologies. So the scale being completely global, the scope meaning many different types of people and from around the world in many different countries. Most of this is absolutely wonderful. The range of people who can use the technologies is both very liberating, but also, as is the case with anything in our realm of humanity, it also engages in the risks because we have a small proportion of people who want to use technologies in nefarious ways. And with the power that each person now has in their pocket in the very, very powerful computers that we carry around, our smart phones, each person has a much greater amount of lethal empowerment than we have experienced in past major revolutions. That's what's really new.

4:46      AKC: Moving forward with our technologies, what's also very new is the degree to which we're developing capability for artificial intelligence—that's coming together. Artificial intelligence dates to at least the 1950s, but now we're, because of the scale and scope of our technologies, able to develop it much more effectively and in a much more muscular way. The other thing that's new is the potential for quantum computing.

5:13      KS: It's very interesting to think about the unprecedented nature of it being the wide access, and of course we're carrying around these incredibly powerful devices and we don't even think about it to a large degree. I think that we could probably do a whole episode about how new and emerging digital technologies have impacted states and multinational corporations and how it's changed business, but we're going to hone in on a specific area. How have digital technologies affected the strategies of terrorists and people who would do harm in a broader way?

5:43      AKC: Well, Kay, this is a question that I'm very concerned about because many people are focusing on the role of digital technologies for business and particularly for state and relationships with each other. And those things are very important. The big focus upon the AI competition, for example, between the United States and China. That's extremely important, but nobody's thinking about, or very few people are thinking about, how ordinary people, and some of them nefarious actors like terrorists, can also use these technologies.

6:13      AKC: Terrorists have for many, many decades, if not centuries, used technologies of information in propaganda purposes, in recruiting members of their groups, in training people with weapons manuals, operational logistics, fundraising. These are all very old established ways of dealing with technology that are now on steroids because we have much bigger, broader scale and scope.

6:41      AKC: But there are also new aspects of today's digital technologies, the boundless interactivity that you have when you're carrying a smartphone, and you can reach many people in many, many different countries. Mobile streaming videos and live streaming: that's a new element which is extraordinarily dangerous because it means that someone who is engaging in violence can immediately publicize what they're doing, which is after all, one of the purposes of terrorism—to engage in symbolic violence. First-person filmmaking is kind of related. It didn't use to be the case that any individual could suddenly be a relatively good television producer. And I don't want to overstate it, but you can certainly engage in that kind of film making in a way that's never before been the case.

7:27      AKC: The ability of news to go viral, disinformation is, in a sense, democratized rather than relying upon the large state organs that we had in the 20th century. And end-to-end encryption, although that's not impervious as we know from the latest stories about WhatsApp the ability to get into WhatsApp end-to-end encryption that has come out recently. But in any case, that's a degree of security for the information that terrorists are spreading between themselves, which is unprecedented.

8:00      AKC: And then the last thing is the ability of using these technologies to engage in psychological manipulation. I mean, actually getting into your head, trying to draw people in through trigger mechanisms or through targeting susceptible communities. This is new.

8:19      KS: All right. So there're two things. One, I think there's that double-edged sort of privacy when you talk about encryption. The same technology that would protect the privacy of people is also protecting the privacy of people who would do harm. And then you talk about the tactics of messaging. In your book, Power to the People. Audrey, you write, that terrorists use similar tactics as online marketers. I am someone who does a fair amount of digital advertising, so I'm familiar with some of these tactics, but listeners may not be. Briefly what are these marketing techniques, and how do they work? What are we talking about when we talk about online marketing?

9:00      AKC: Well, Kay, this is dangerous territory for me since I'm not a marketer and you are, but I'll tell you what I've seen among terrorists and perhaps you can add more about the tools that I am not familiar with. But in any case, terrorists have engaged in targeting, trying to find specific communities that are characterized by their behaviors or their personal characteristics, their identities. Algorithms, tools that drive traffic in ways that serve their interests. Bundling so that if you stumble on one thing, you can find something else accidentally in the same place. So putting messages in bundles with products sometimes. Triggers, the whole social media world is oriented toward the ability to use extremely attractive mechanisms to draw your attention, either sounds or sometimes colors. Red is particularly attractive and that's one of the reasons why when you get notifications it's a little red number on your phone. These things are also used by terrorists to get attention as well.

10:06      AKC: So triggers, they don't have the ability to change what's on your phone, but they use emotional triggers, references to events that are horrible and then draw people's attention or other types of emotionally driven triggers are very effective for them. All of these things are marketing tools that—I'm not implying that they're as good as major companies, but these tools have been in place for five or 10 years now, and it's only inevitable that non-state actors like terrorists are also going to have access to them and they do.

10:40      KS: I mean, sort of the whole idea of online advertising at this point is trying to serve people ads that they're more likely to be responsive to based on their own online behavior and in sites that they visit, emails they send, all types of information that we sort of don't think about being used in that way. And certainly on social media platforms, it's tremendously based on what you've been doing and the kinds of things that you've been looking at. And you think about these tactics that you see all the time, so I think about L.L.Bean is using this to sell jackets. If I've been looking for jackets, I'm going to get jacket ads and if I've been to their site, I'm going to keep seeing that same jacket. It's going to follow me around on all the different sites that I look at.

11:24      AKC: Isn't that annoying sometimes?

11:24      KS: It is.

11:25      AKC: Especially when you've all ready bought a new jacket.

11:27      KS: Yeah, exactly. I got the jacket. But it is very interesting and frightening to think about those types of behaviors because it isn't just the jacket that I bought that follows me around. It's all different kinds of jackets. Because they saw that I was looking at jackets and so I'm getting served jacket ads. So if I've been looking at different types of information, maybe I'm vulnerable in some way emotionally, because of a group that I'm part of or because of something that happened to me in the past, to think about being targeted in that way. Kind of a psychographic characteristic, geographic targeting, whatever—that's being used on social media by terrorists. And I hear you say that it's not quite to the level of business targeting at this point. Do you think we're headed in that direction?

12:13      AKC: Oh no, I don't want to overstate the problem of terrorism. When I talk about terrorism, these things also apply to insurgents, small groups, individuals who engage in violence. I'm talking about people who have nefarious purposes and who are non-state. So terrorist is only a subset even of that. But that's always a small proportion of humanity. But what they're able to do now is leverage their capabilities. And when it comes to the history of that kind of asymmetrical violence, being able to leverage your capabilities is what gives you power. If you can get people to respond, then you gain power, even if you're, to begin, with a very weak actor.

12:56      KS: Right. And that is one of the things that social media does. It's a great leveler for any kind of niche, anything. Interest of any kind, you can find a community. And if you can leverage that to give it a much bigger megaphone, that is what you're talking about.

13:09      AKC: Exactly what I'm talking about.

13:18      KS: Audrey Kurth Cronin, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guest, get to daydream out loud and reorder the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. So what five policies would you institute to influence the future of digital technologies and security?

13:37      AKC: Okay. Well, with the understanding that reordering the world does not include me becoming a billionaire, I'll give you a set of five. The first thing I'd do is improve the cybersecurity of our infrastructure, especially the financial sector but also the electrical grid, water, transportation, and all the things that are vital to our societies. I think this is an extremely high priority for policy.

14:03      AKC: Secondly, is to develop better measures against weaponized, armed drones. Things like you should be allowed to have geo-fencing around your home if you would want it.

14:14      AKC: Thirdly, is allow individuals to purchase appliances and devices that are not connected to the internet of things because those things are vulnerable and there's just no need for your refrigerator to be connected.

14:27      AKC: Fourth is to develop a bill of rights for the ownership of your individual data. That's extremely important because data is a very powerful tool that's being used in lots of ways that are completely uncontrolled and in some respects dangerous.

14:40      AKC: Fifth and finally is to build smart global measures to guide or even regulate artificial intelligence, particularly as it's being used in weapons and that might involve state-to-state arms control style negotiations. I think it's inevitable that we're going to have to do that because artificial intelligence can be used for good, but also could be extraordinarily dangerous and destabilizing in terms of our global security.

15:06      AKC: Basically, overall what I'd say is more than the five policy prescriptions is we really must educate our lawmakers and the general public to be much savvier about the risks and opportunities of our digital world because it's going to be our children, Kay, and our grandchildren who deal with it.

15:25      KS: Exactly. Thank you.

15:32      KS: Audrey, with digital technologies, it's more difficult for states to control national narratives and the media landscape is dramatically changing. Sometimes it feels like it's changing in the minute by minute. I think that we've all witnessed positive examples of this, like when government protestors use social media to organize in Egypt and Sudan and Hong Kong as recently as 2019. We've also seen the crackdown that typically follows. Sometimes this is in the form of governments shutting off access to the Internet altogether. Do you think, overall, this trend of social media organizing helps or hurts democracies and democratic interests?

16:12      AKC: Well, that remains to be seen. Again, an academic answer, but it's also the case that history is unfolding, and it also depends upon the particular country and the laws of that country. So the degree to which protesters can be crushed may be one thing in a place like Hong Kong and another thing in a place like the United States. And I'm not suggesting that every sort of protest should be crushed. That's not my point. My point is that our laws are not well structured to be able to guide us to the most right and appropriate ways of allowing people to express themselves, but not engage in nefarious acts on the one hand and then allowing states to provide security for the broad range of their citizens without crushing the ability to express yourself. That's a balance that is different in different parts of the world.

17:11      AKC: The one thing that we now know is that it's not possible to engage in a popular uprising and to be successful unless you have a deep amount of organization behind it. So the kind of flash-in-the-pan protests that can be gathered together very quickly with social media are not necessarily an effective way of engaging in political change. And as we begin to learn that, we also see the limits of popular use of social media.

17:38      KS: I think—and I don't want to trivialize the Internet or the use of the internet—but the truth is a lot of us, especially Americans, the way that we use the Internet is especially trivial. I mean, we watch cute hedgehog videos, we watch cat videos, we watch videos of recipes coming together, we share recipes. The idea of governments using social media in those moments when we're watching a funny video is very far from our minds. We're not thinking about it being used this way. But nonetheless, digital technologies are being used by government institutions in a variety of ways. So how do governments use social media, digital technologies to combat rogue actors?

18:16      AKC: Well, governments like our government are using digital technology very effectively in intelligence, in targeting, in finding out exactly what the nature of the target might be, depending on the government we're talking about. For example, China has of fairly widely known firewall as to what kinds of media that people within China can access. Kashmir was recently just cut off of all their access to networks and social media and the Internet at all. So there are very good blunt tools that governments have and there are some more refined scalpel-like tools that they use—particularly in active combat zones or in intelligence operations. But that really quite depends upon the legal and governmental structure, and it's hard to generalize about these things.

19:19      AKC: In the United States for example, I think we're facing, within the next several decades, the need to recalibrate a lot of the basic understanding that we have about things like the Fourth Amendment, search and seizure. What is privacy? What does it mean? The First Amendment. What is freedom of speech, and when does it bleed over into abuse? Property. What does it mean to actually own something? The smart phone that I brought with me today is absolutely useless unless it has the software within it. The software does not belong to me, and so do we still own the physical things that we have?

19:58      AKC: All of these basic things are one of the reasons why, as we started out talking about, the fourth industrial revolution is really shifting a lot of our understanding of basic human rights and responsibilities.

20:13      KS: I think this is going to be—you're right. You're so right that there has to be this look at what these rights that were established in a very different time even mean and for so long the right to free speech was abridged in a number of ways. One of them is you can't shout fire in a crowded movie theater. But if you're shouting fire on social media, what are your responsibilities? What is and what can the law do to you or how can those behaviors be a bridge and how should they be a bridge without unduly suppressing the First Amendment? It's a really interesting and hard question. I mean, do you think the US government is even up to this task, frankly?

21:00      AKC: It has to be. What's the alternative? I would also go beyond the US government and talk about the media. I think the media have been struggling. They've been at the forefront of many of these changes, and the fact that the media landscape is so fractionalized, that there are filter bubbles, that there's—the whole business model has been undermined in terms of paying for content. How is it that you maintain high standards when you can't get any kind of revenue for the content that you're providing?

21:29      AKC: Delegitimizing the search for truth, delegitimizing specific facts, relativizing, if that's the word, making everything somewhat relative when it comes to what anyone believes. No one, now, believes anything because they're caught up in conspiracy theories at times. There's a kind of a race to the bottom when it comes to the media, and there are people who are standing against that within the media. I'm not trying to impugn anybody's honest, hard work, but all you have to do is look at that one sector of our society and see that the government can't fix all of that. Some of that has to be reshuffling that business model in a way that, again, goes back toward protecting what it is to have a fact and to be seeking the truth.

22:16      KS: I think that Fourth Amendment question is also huge with search and seizure. When you think about backdoors into iPhones, and they always ask about the backdoor and they say, "Well, there is no backdoor. Well we want one." What actually exists and is possible and has been created by these privately held companies is unclear, honestly, and it may be clear to the government, but sometimes I don't really know if they know exactly the technology that they're dealing with when they're dealing with privately held companies that have taken these technologies and advanced them so far. That just seems like one of the major issues that's going to have to be addressed is what is your expectation of privacy with your communications through your phone? It's just going to have to be.

23:01      AKC: Yes, I agree. And this fight between the question of encryption versus law enforcement is a very important fight. Well, one of the big differences in this industrial revolution, I think, is that in the third industrial revolution, particularly if you look back into the 19th century, you can see that the automobile or the development of electricity, these were things where you had private companies that were developing things that had to be supported on an infrastructure that was ultimately built by government. So you had cars, but they drove on roads and the roads were either a state, city, or federal government built. It's the opposite now.

23:39      AKC: What you have is private companies that are controlling cyberspace. The government is coming in much later in the process, and the government can't build the infrastructure because the infrastructure has been built by private companies. So we have to come up with new solutions to the many threats and opportunities of the digital age.

24:00      KS: Audrey, this is the existential question that social media tends to provoke, and it's the broad question that I'll put to you in closing. Overall, do you think social media is good or bad for people and society?

24:13      AKC: Wow. I think social media is inevitable, and so therefore it's both good and bad. I mean, another academic answer, but I think it's actually true. I mean, there's no winding the clock back. I think that allowing people to connect through social media is a good thing, but we're naive if we don't understand that we're going to have to have good regulation as well.

24:38      KS: Right. At this point, it no longer matters if it's good or bad. It's inevitable.

24:42      AKC: Exactly.

24:44      KS: Audrey Kurth Cronin, thank you for joining Big World and helping us understand how social media is used by terrorists and by governments. It's been really great to speak with you.

24:52      AKC: I've enjoyed it, Kay. Thank you.

24:54      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like a mug of hot chocolate on a snowy day. Our theme music is, It Was Just Cold, by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Audrey Kurth Cronin,
professor, SIS and director, CSINT

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