ISIS not ‘tech-savvy’: Social media expert tells UAE forum

Militant group's attempts to recruit via social media are only partially effective he says

Shounaz Meky

Published: Updated:

Social media experts have denied claims that ISIS are somehow tech-savvy and that the militant group’s use of social networking tools does not mean that the technology is the root of the problem.

Speaking at the International Government Communication Forum in Sharjah, UAE, Ben Hammersley, a journalist and researcher on social networking tools, said the militant group’s attempts to recruit Westerners through social media was only affecting a “minority of people.”

He said, in a discussion chaired by Al Arabiya News Channel TV anchor and reporter Rima Maktabi, that from an estimated population of 1.7 million Muslims in the United Kingdom, a relatively small group of 400 were recruited to join ISIS.

“The fact that it happens through social media does not make social media the problem,” he said, adding that ISIS propaganda affects “people who are already susceptible” to such extremist ideas, who do not make up the majority.

And Jared Cohen, founder and director of Google Ideas, said of the regulation of social media: “When governments try to regulate social media, they inspire their citizens to come up with ways to bypass them.”

But Arab television celebrity and MBC presenter Muna Abu Sulayman disagreed, saying that social media needed government regulation in order to prevent extremist groups from recruiting young people into fighting in war zones.

But she said problems arose when governments “overstep” their regulation of online platforms used by people as means to express themselves.

Meanwhile, Cohen rejected the widely held view that ISIS was somehow “tech savvy.”

He said this inaccurate perception was due to their use of communication tools and their attention to content.

He also said that the best way to counter ISIS propaganda was by focusing on former ISIS militants who abandoned the group and were now sharing their stories.

The speakers also looked at the level of digital connectivity that governments share with their audiences.

Hammersley said governments should always “go to where communication is happening,” adding that the tools of communication are now “chosen by people not governments.”

“Government communication isn’t about foreign policy all the time, it is [also] about listening to people’s daily problems,” he added.

Meanwhile, Abu Sulayman noted the change in the way traditional media were being accessed by people.

Pointing to the Saudi government’s recent announcement of a royal decree live on state television, Abu Sulyman said young social media users were actively sharing the pictures and resumes of the newly appointed officials as the decree was being read.