Virtual tribes: 21st century weapons of information warfare

By Associate Professor Jean Bogais
Location: Sydney, Australia

Social media has become a major commodity of conflict. Associate Professor Jean Bogais explores the changing nature of violent extremisms and digital terrorism networks.

The internet can be a battleground where hearts and minds are won and lost, where political views are manipulated, extremism flourishes and reality is twisted to the point where it is no longer recognisable. On this battleground, the truth often falls victim to fake news and life in the real world is changed as a result.

In today’s info-technological age, it is no longer whose army wins on the day, but whose story does. These stories, however, are not those aired on television screens or printed in newspapers. They are the Facebook, Instagram and Dark Web stories, which users share on a daily basis believing that they are capable of differentiating between real and fake content. Today’s social media is not a subset of the internet, but is a parallel internet in which stories, authentic or not, travel much faster than the truth. This is making the international strategic environment vulnerable, and various states and non-state actors are posing growing challenges to the global security more than ever by taking advantage of these vulnerabilities.

Authenticity against fake news

The concept of authenticity has always existed. Its current prominence, however, lies in the transition of a global economy from ‘manufacturing’ to ‘experience’ where individuals prefer to invest their time, energy and money into experiences. They consider products and services as authentic if these provide them with unique and high-quality individual and collective experiences. The initial success of social media platforms was based on the superior quality and exceptional networking that made it appear authentic. Social media emerged as a medium where technology made it possible for information and ideas to penetrate much faster and deeper than electronic and print media, making it a primary source of up-to-date information around the globe. This led to the commodification of social media platforms as well as information.

Widespread disinformation and misinformation make it possible to strengthen existing social, economic and cultural prejudices. By increasing the ideological and political polarisation it supports intolerance and violent extremism.

In addition to fake content, the basic design of social media platforms is making things worse. Through built-in features the networks are not only providing more toxic content but also exposing new users to old users with extreme ideologies.

The tug-of-war between authentic and fake news is blurring the boundary between peace and war. Social media users are becoming victims of cyber-utopianism, a trend that poses challenges to global security in this contemporary post-truth information environment, where an emotional appeal is more influential than the objective facts in shaping public opinion. The overwhelming power of the emotional appeal provides the means to reframe narratives.

Using social media to strengthen violent narrative

History shows that almost all wars and conflicts until the first Gulf War were about commodities, race and religion. The 21st Century, however, is an info-technological age where conflicts revolve around information, which has become the major commodity. The international system is now driven by information warfare, and social media has become a major tool of this warfare. This has led to the manipulation of information on these platforms. The inauthenticity of the information and platforms is posing serious challenges to the global security landscape.

A Zakir Naik lecture sermon on YouTube. Naik is a preacher who is linked to extremist views and intolerance of religious freedom. Photo: Agoes Rudianto

Almost immediately after the terrorist attack in Christchurch, the militant community in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, started to incite vengeance against non-Muslims whom they called kuffar, or infidels. Angered and outraged Indonesian-speaking IS-inspired Telegram groups called for attacks against Christians. Islamist militants framed the attack as a religious conflict, claiming that it was not (a matter of) white extremism, racism or immigration but a problem of the “kuffar who will never accept Islam or Muslims”. To strengthen this narrative, pictures of the firearm used by the shooter of the Christchurch massacre were circulated online on IS-inspired platforms. Shortly after the attack, Muntasir Media – a pro-IS media outlet – published a video titled Millatuhum Wahidah (Their Religion is One), which outlined the perceived unfairness faced by Muslims globally and called for lone-wolf attacks on churches, pubs and populated areas, by any means possible.

Strengthening violent narrative can only occur if a space for an audience has been created and social media is a mechanism to achieve this. Since its inception, IS and its associates have successfully developed strategies to exploit this potential.

Social bonding and virtual tribes

Even now, its defeat in Iraq and Syria has not stopped IS from continuing to espouse its radical Islamist ideology to radicalise people through skilful use of social media.

Contrary to common belief, IS’s social media and physical presence in Southeast Asia is rapidly growing, representing a significant threat to regional security.

The virtual tribe becomes a perceived kinship set to inspire more individuals to become lone-wolf terrorists and/or to form small, autonomous cells to be part of larger, leaderless jihad movements.

Social bonding plays an important role in the online radicalisation process, cementing bonds within the virtual tribe. It is the interactivity that the internet and social media applications provide that encourage interested individuals to cultivate the mindset of a terrorist. Individuals who are receptive to the material posted on the wider platforms seek out connections to others and go through processes of 'social bonding' where they exchange their grievances and expose one another to similar ideological material. The last step occurs when selected target members are directed to further self-radicalise through continuous exposure to online radical material and online guidance.

Screenshot of the now removed Yuk Ngaji Tauhid (Let’s Study Tauhid) group on Facebook.

Internet ethnicity

As Facebook and Twitter continue to crack down on accounts supporting IS and other terrorist organisations, social bonding continues on encrypted messaging applications such as Telegram. The platform’s core strength is user anonymity, making it the preferred tool for jihadists. Telegram’s public channels enable private one-to-one conversations as well as one-to-many communications, which has allowed IS followers and affiliates to disseminate and distribute information without instructions or directions from a central command. The free exchange of information on the application has created a semblance of geographical space that enables the social bonding that strengthens the virtual tribe.

While online networks are often restricted to a specific ethnicity, the IS network is extremely diverse and consists of a tribe filled with people who identify with having an ‘internet ethnicity’. As such, they form a much stronger and even coordinated leaderless jihad movement that can pose a significant threat to state security agencies, trade, business and international relations overall. As IS continues to strengthen its virtual tribe, the lone-wolf actors and clandestine networks within this imagined community will start to form loose, abstract structures and become harder to detect, therefore increasing their effectiveness.

The level of coordination among these actors should be a cause for concern. It poses a much bigger asymmetric threat than that of a typical leaderless jihad movement. In this context, information warfare is a complex construct that must be explored via complex systems, as its core element is fundamentally psycho-social rather than just technological.

Note from the editor: This article was written prior to the Sri Lanka Easter bombing. Assessments of these critical events are being undertaken by Associate Professor Bogais with RSIS at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. His research aims to contribute to a better understanding and reduction of violent attacks like in Sri Lanka.

Jean Bogais

Associate Professor Jean Bogais

Associate Professor Jean Bogais is a Sorbonne-educated sociologist and social and intercultural psychologist whose principle area of interest is violence. He was recently appointed Associate Professor (Education-focused) at the University of Sydney Business School (Executive Education). He is an internationally recognised specialist in information warfare, terrorism, conflict resolution and applied ethics. His work in South East Asia has focused on the development of violent extremism and terrorism networks and information warfare.