Beginning in 2015, we started to monitor and report on how Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were being used as the catalyst to incite global violence. Essentially, the platforms allowed extremist ideologies of the virtual world to bleed over into the real world. This process was facilitated by a pervasive cycle of negligence that ensued for years because the social media companies refused to remove online content that posed a significant threat to United States, international and homeland security interests. Our research and knowledge on this subject have been reported by nearly every news organization around the world; yet the social media companies have remained unresponsive to the mounting complaints and media criticism.
Despite acknowledged failures to manage the corrupt and nefarious misuses on their online platforms, social media companies such as Facebook continue to dominate political, social, economic and cultural messaging across the globe with impunity. Although Facebook’s executives have publicly alleged that their platforms were created to provide a visceral environment where harmonious ideas could merge, in recent years we have learned that the platforms have been widely used by terrorists to recruit, radicalize and disseminate extremist content encouraging attacks on United States democracy, its infrastructure and its military personnel.
Ongoing discussions about social media’s contribution to online radicalism have remained somewhat dense because of lack of knowledge pertaining to threatening content and government’s unwillingness to challenge “Big Tech,” considering the financial influences that social media has over geo-political affairs. Unfortunately, failures to challenge the status quo have emboldened international terrorist groups like ISIS to ramp up their radicalized propaganda on social media to encourage more attacks on U.S. interests; thereby limiting our nation’s ability to mitigate the outcomes of attacks inspired by threats proliferated through those platforms.
Based on emergent social media trends on Facebook and Instagram, members of our military and intelligence community overseas should be extremely concerned. After President Trump’s announcement in December 2018 of America’s intended withdrawal of troops from Syria, we identified a discernible spike in radicalized content on Facebook encouraging attacks on U.S. interests in Syria. The content is often so specific that anyone would deduce the correlation of recent attacks on American troops to the radicalized messages.
For example, on January 16, 2019, two U.S. soldiers and two American civilians were killed by a suicide bomber in the city of Manbij in Syria. In the aftermath of the attack, a video surfaced online depicting graphic scenes of the suicide bomber detonating his vest among a crowd of people in front the restaurant that Americans were meeting. Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack and has since used the video in its propaganda campaign on social media to inspire others to carry out similar attacks against our military officials and soldiers. On January 21, 2019, three Americans were injured in a second targeted attack. In this incident, an ISIS suicide bomber targeted an allied Kurdish force and a U.S.-led convoy traveling in northern Syria. Videos and photo images of both attacks were posted on ISIS Facebook accounts to inspire more attacks.
Over the last decade, corresponding with the advent of social media, America has lagged in its ability to appropriately engage terrorists because of our inability to intercept threatening communication strains on social media. This shortcoming has remained consistent over the years because there is no legal mandate or regulatory requirement for the social media companies to inform government authorities of impending threats. Additionally, our vulnerabilities to such threats is exacerbated by Congress’ inability to pass comprehensive legislation addressing the immunity clause in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act; which offers broad immunity protection to the social media companies for facilitating the nefarious third-party content. The social companies have frequently claimed this “immunity protection” to circumvent blame and have often leveraged its protections for other “carte blanche” activities including claims of providing material support to terrorism.
It is important for our leaders to understand that if this issue remains unchecked, then the lives our soldiers abroad will continue to be endangered and our nation’s critical assets will continue to be subjected to the real world consequences of online radicalization. We believe that to proactively protect our troops overseas, multi-party collaborations must exist including: (1) Congress must hold social media companies accountable for facilitating overt threats to our international and homeland security interests; (2) social media companies must provide the U.S. intelligence community access to the “clandestine communications network” that terrorists have formed on their platforms, so that they can better respond to threats; and (3) third-party experts must be integrated into the review process to properly audit any threat-mitigation procedures adapted by the social media companies. Unfortunately, the social media companies’ history of poor unaccountable behavior has shown us that they cannot be trusted to protect the interests of our nation’s greatest assets - the men and women who honorable serve in the U.S. military!
Demetrick Pennie, Ed.D., is a 20-year veteran Dallas police sergeant. He is nationally recognized as a law enforcement advocate and currently serves as the president of the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation and the executive director of the Texas Fallen Officer Foundation. He is also a Doctor of Education and has facilitated college courses ranging from: Terrorism, Ethics, Criminal Law and Justice, to Cultural diversity.
Eric Feinberg, is the CEO of the cyber-intelligence company GIPEC. He is an expert in cyber-intelligence attribution and has been featured in many major publications as an expert in the field.