The offline allure of ISIS

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TSG IntelBrief: Two recent announcements highlight the difference between the so-called Islamic State’s reach on social media and its real-world appeal. On February 5, 2016, Twitter announced it had suspended more than 125,000 accounts for supporting terrorism since mid-2015. On the same day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that 34 militant groups worldwide had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as of last December, with more likely in 2016. The Islamic State’s social media efforts have always received disproportionate attention. Less attention has been paid to the offline power of the group in terms of radicalization and recruitment. Social networks matter more than social media when it comes to proliferating the ideology of bin-Ladinism espoused by both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

From pamphlets to audio cassette tapes—and now videos and mobile messaging apps—terrorists have always sought to broadcast their ideology to motivate and rally people to their cause. But the real propagation of terrorism requires salesmen and saleswomen—people who understand that the principles of persuasion begin with a deep understanding of the prospective customer. Graphic tweets may produce headlines, but persuasive individuals produce recruits, often in clusters.

The eight young men who left the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad, Norway, to join the Islamic State in Syria did not join because of social media, even if it did help spread the group’s message. All were reportedly motivated to join the Islamic State by the example of Abdullah Chaib, a charismatic local soccer player who traveled to Syria in 2012. The small group of friends created a feedback loop of motivation and encouragement that did not depend on Twitter or Facebook. Likewise, the terror recruit cluster in Molenbeek, Belgium thrived on networks built around friendship and familial ties, not Telegram or Kik. This same dynamic of peer-to-peer recruitment and consistent face-to-face interaction produced the cluster in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region of Minnesota. Long-time foreign fighter hotbeds such as Derna, Libya, and Bizerte and Ben Gardane in Tunisia rely on decidedly offline networks to export extremism. [Continue reading…]

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Invasion of the body snatchers

Jacob Weisberg writes: “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day — an average of every 4.3 minutes — according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago. Yet today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age.

What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? [Continue reading…]

As one of those eccentric, socially marginalized but not quite old aged people without a smartphone, it means I now live in a world where it seems the mass of humanity has become myopic.

A driver remains stationary in front of a green light.

A couple sit next to each other in an airport, wrapped in silence with attention directed elsewhere down their mutually exclusive wormholes.

A jogger in the woods, hears no birdsong because his ears are stuffed with plastic buds delivering private tunes.

Amidst all this divided attention, one thing seems abundantly clearly: devices tap into and amplify the desire to be some place else.

To be confined to the present place and the present time is to be trapped in a prison cell from which the smartphone offers escape — though of course it doesn’t.

What it does is produce an itch in time; a restless sense that we don’t have enough — that an elusive missing something might soon appear on that mesmerizing little touchscreen.

The effect of this refusal to be where we are is to impoverish life as our effort to make it larger ends up doing the reverse.

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Google thinks it can combat terrorism with advertising

The Telegraph reports: Jihadi sympathisers who type extremism-related words into Google will be shown anti-radicalisation links instead, under a pilot scheme announced by the internet giant.

The new technology means people at risk of radicalisation will be presented with internet links which are the exact opposite of what they were searching for.

Dr Anthony House, a senior Google executive, revealed the pilot scheme in evidence to MPs scrutinising the role of internet companies in combating extremism.

“We are working on counter-narratives around the world. This year one of the things we’re looking at is we are running two pilot programmes,” said Dr House.

“One is to make sure these types of views are more discoverable.

“The other is to make sure when people put potentially damaging search terms into our search engine they also find these counter narratives.”

A Google spokeswoman said the pilot project referred to by Dr House would bring up counter-narrative messages in “AdWords” – the sponsored links which are returned at the top of a Google search – and not the search results themselves.

Dr House said later: “We offer Google AdWords Grants to NGOs so that meaningful counter-speech ads can be surfaced in response to search queries like ‘join Isis’.” [Continue reading…]

Let’s disregard the fact that would-be jihadists are just as likely as anyone else to use ad-blocking software. What are we to imagine the click-through rate will be for, let’s say, a Human Rights Watch ad that appears on a search page delivered on a query about the ISIS magazine, Dabiq?

Is Dr House serious? This sounds, more than anything, like a PR exercise for Google — a way of saying: we’re playing out part in combating terrorism.

Clearly, Google, like every other internet company, wants to be seen as being opposed to terrorism; not as a facilitator of terrorism through the creation of communications platforms — even though in reality these have become a vital tools in 21st century terrorism.

Terrorists are often credited with being able to stay one step ahead of their adversaries — as though this is an indication of their cunning. Unfortunately, more often it seems to be an indication that counter-terrorism is another name for easy money.

Anything can get funded on the smallest prospect it might be effective. Those who carry the burden that they must be seen to be doing something, can duly claim they are meeting their responsibilities as they approve almost anything.

Aside from the question of efficacy when it comes to Google’s strategy for presenting counter-narratives, just as importantly, we need to question the search engine’s ability to decipher the motives of its users, i.e it’s ability to accurately identify “dangerous searches.” After all, a query that indicates the malevolent intentions of one user, might from another user be an indication that they are a journalist or an academic. Search terms indicate what is sought but not necessarily why it is being sought.

Beyond that is the broader issue of the political and social manipulation that internet companies are engaged in when the services they provide are designed to modify the behavior of their users.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Men have become the tools of their tools,” but it’s hard to grasp the degree to which, during the intervening 150 years, this has become so much more true.

Google might not have high expectations about its ability to limit the growth of ISIS through the use of adwords, yet it certainly has a huge interest in every branch of research through which it can refine the effectiveness of its primary revenue source by shaping our interests and desires.

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Google: Big bets on future tech are sign of an empire bidding for immortality

By Robert MacIntosh, Heriot Watt University

We have got used to Google as a massive global success story. But sometimes the detail is more interesting than the top line. On February 1 an announcement by the firm’s holding company Alphabet gave investors their first real insight into the relative performances of its different parts. And it revealed a lot about a section of the operation of which we previously knew very little – the large number of investments into technologies that are some distance from the core businesses.

We now know that these “moonshots”, as they have come to be known, produced an operating loss of $3.6bn (£2.5bn) in 2015. They lost $1.9bn in 2014 and $527m in 2013. You may have heard about the wearable technology or the driverless cars, but it goes much further than that. There is fibre-optic broadband, Indian railway wifi, thermostats, IP video cameras and solar-powered drones. Then there is Google’s X-lab. Initially shrouded in secrecy, it is now known to be working on everything from contact lenses for diabetics that can monitor glucose levels in tears, to nano-particles that will be able to predict disease.

The revelation about the losses didn’t stop Alphabet from replacing Apple as the most valuable company on the planet the day after the announcement. So what can we infer from its seemingly voracious appetite for newness?

[Read more…]

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How the Telegram messaging app is changing Iranian media

Saeid Jafari reports: “A grandson of the late founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been disqualified from running for the Assembly of Experts”; “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has reached a deadlock”; “The bodybuilding champion of Iran and the world has been killed in a street fight”; and “Following in the footsteps of Djibouti and Sudan, Tunisia has also severed its ties with Iran.”

These are some of the stories that have been widely circulated among Iranians in recent weeks — but they weren’t reported by any of the licensed Iranian media outlets. Thanks to the power of social media, where ordinary Iranians can produce and broadcast their own news, many of these stories find their way into people’s homes. The same, unfortunately, also goes for mere rumors.

First it was Facebook, and then the smartphone messaging apps Viber and Line. Now, however, the hottest communication tool among Iranians is Telegram. It has more advanced features than its predecessors, and enjoys a high level of influence in Iranian society. Information and Communications Technology Minister Mahmoud Vaezi said there are roughly 13 million to 14 million Telegram users in Iran. More recent surveys, however, put this figure at over 20 million. The simplicity and ease associated with using Telegram has prompted users to see themselves as a rival of licensed media outlets. In fact, many governmental organizations are now using Telegram to create a bridge to communicate with their audiences. [Continue reading…]

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‘Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need’

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Pico Iyer writes: The idea of going nowhere is as universal as the law of gravity; that’s why wise souls from every tradition have spoken of it. “All the unhappiness of men,” the seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously noted, “arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” After Admiral Richard E. Byrd spent nearly five months alone in a shack in the Antarctic, in temperatures that sank to 70 degrees below zero, he emerged convinced that “Half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need.” Or, as they sometimes say around Kyoto, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Yet the days of Pascal and even Admiral Byrd seem positively tranquil by today’s standards. The amount of data humanity will collect while you’re reading The Art of Stillness is five times greater than the amount that exists in the entire Library of Congress. Anyone reading it will take in as much information today as Shakespeare took in over a lifetime. Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes — which means we’re never caught up with our lives.

And the more facts come streaming in on us, the less time we have to process any one of them. The one thing technology doesn’t provide us with is a sense of how to make the best use of technology. Put another way, the ability to gather information, which used to be so crucial, is now far less important than the ability to sift through it. [Continue reading…]

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Remember photos of Erdogan’s aide kicking a protester? Now they’re blocked in Turkey

Mashable reports: Famous images showing an aide to Turkey’s prime minister kicking a protester in the wake of a national tragedy are slowly vanishing from the internet in Turkey.

The photographs were taken after a fire killed 301 miners in the spring of 2014 and they quickly became symbols of the government’s callous reaction to the worst industrial accident in Turkey’s history.

Yet anyone in Turkey today who tries to find the famous photos of Yusuf Yerkel winding up for a kick aimed a protester who was already on the ground — and restrained by security — will find that many webpages showing the image are blocked. [Continue reading…]

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Wikipedia at 15: In decline but condition isn’t terminal – so what may the future hold?

By Aleksi Aaltonen, University of Warwick

As Wikipedia reaches its 15th birthday, our perception of the free online encyclopedia feels quite different to when it launched. The controversy and excitement that surrounded the service in the early days has passed. This isn’t surprising. An encyclopedia is, after all, supposed to be merely a neutral collection of generally relevant knowledge.

Behind this sense of a coming of age are two opposing narratives – an incredible achievement, but also some signs of decline. First the positives: more than five million articles have been produced by more than 27m registered users in the English version alone.

The product that founder Jimmy Wales and his team have created is a story of explosive growth without the traditional foundations of organisations, such as managerial authority, contracts or revenue (donations aside). Wikipedia is said to be the seventh most visited website in the world.

[Read more…]

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Happy birthday Wikipedia!

As Wikipedia turns 15 years old, it turns out that there is no richer source of information about Wikipedia than Wikipedia itself.

The circularity of being able to read about Wikipedia on Wikipedia, signals the intricate depth of this wonderful enterprise.

So, here’s a sampling of pages that provide doorways into the labyrinth (follow the links to read the complete articles):

Wikipedia’s description of itself: Wikipedia is a free-access, free-content Internet encyclopedia, supported and hosted by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Those who can access the site can edit most of its articles. Wikipedia is ranked among the ten most popular websites, and constitutes the Internet’s largest and most popular general reference work.

History of Wikipedia

Wikipedia notability: On Wikipedia, notability is a test used by editors to decide whether a given topic warrants its own article.

List of Wikipedias: This is a list of the different language editions of Wikipedia; as of January 2016 there are 291 Wikipedias of which 280 are active.

Wikipedia’s Top 5000 pages: This lists pages accessed during the last week (updated once a week).

Wikipedia’s contents overview: This is a portal that allows readers to explore content through a directory system.

Conflict-of-interest editing on Wikipedia

Gender bias on Wikipedia

What Wikipedia is not

Wikimedia Endowment: “This Endowment will serve as a perpetual source of support for Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation. It will empower people around the world to create and contribute free knowledge, and share that knowledge with every single human being.

“With your support, we are only getting started. Help us ensure that Wikipedia lives forever!”

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The deep space of digital reading

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Paul La Farge writes: In A History of Reading, the Canadian novelist and essayist Alberto Manguel describes a remarkable transformation of human consciousness, which took place around the 10th century A.D.: the advent of silent reading. Human beings have been reading for thousands of years, but in antiquity, the normal thing was to read aloud. When Augustine (the future St. Augustine) went to see his teacher, Ambrose, in Milan, in 384 A.D., he was stunned to see him looking at a book and not saying anything. With the advent of silent reading, Manguel writes,

… the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal.

To read silently is to free your mind to reflect, to remember, to question and compare. The cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf calls this freedom “the secret gift of time to think”: When the reading brain becomes able to process written symbols automatically, the thinking brain, the I, has time to go beyond those symbols, to develop itself and the culture in which it lives.

A thousand years later, critics fear that digital technology has put this gift in peril. The Internet’s flood of information, together with the distractions of social media, threaten to overwhelm the interior space of reading, stranding us in what the journalist Nicholas Carr has called “the shallows,” a frenzied flitting from one fact to the next. In Carr’s view, the “endless, mesmerizing buzz” of the Internet imperils our very being: “One of the greatest dangers we face,” he writes, “as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.”

There’s no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips. [Continue reading…]

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Who was more prescient: Clinton or Awlaki? And why is YouTube helping promote a Trump conspiracy theory?

After a 52-minute video made by al-Kataib, the media outlet of Somalia’s al-Qaeda-affiliate, al-Shabaab, was posted on YouTube yesterday, it was swiftly removed. YouTube has a long-standing policy of banning videos that incite violence.

As the ABC News report above shows, the element in the video which has grabbed the media’s attention is its use of Donald Trump’s recent call for Muslims to be prohibited from entering the United States.

Here’s the part of the video which features Trump — although, by the time you read this post, YouTube will have removed this clip, which is why I’m also posting a transcript:

First we see the American imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, making a prediction about the fate of Muslims who continue living in the U.S. — Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Then comes a clip of Trump and then Awalaki again.

Awlaki, date unknown: Muslims of the West, take heed and learn from the lessons of history. There are ominous clouds gathering in your horizon.

Yesterday, America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan. And tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps.

Trump speaking at a campaign rally on December 7: Guys remember this and listen: Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States [cheers] until our country’s representatives can figure out what [expletive bleeped] is going on [cheers and applause].

Awlaki: The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens. Hence, my advice to you is this: You have two choices, either hijra or jihad. You either leave or you fight. You leave and live among Muslims, or you stay behind and follow the example of Nidal Hassan [perpetrator of the Fort Hood mass shooting] and others who fulfilled their duty of fighting for Allah’s cause.

In response to pressure from Western governments, YouTube and other social media channels are becoming increasingly aggressive in blocking the distribution of terrorist propaganda. There is understandable frustration at the fact that the internet is being used to threaten the very societies within which this global communications system was created.

Censorship can easily backfire, however, and this is happening with the removal of clips of the new al-Shabaab video.

After the full-length version had been removed, snippets which just showed the al-Awalaki statement and Trump, have also been removed (as I noted above).

It is clear that these videos are being posted by Trump critics rather than al-Shabaab supporters and their removal is breathing life into a conspiracy theory being propagated by some Trump supporters: that the al-Shabaab video itself is a fabrication created by the Clinton campaign!

It seems likely that there are some Trump supporters who — following the lead of Bashar al-Assad supporters — are using YouTube’s community guidelines in order to silence criticism.

Although in the short clips of the al-Shabaab, Awlaki is indeed inciting violence, the clips themselves are clearly not being posted in order to incite violence — they have been posted to show how Trump’s rhetoric serves as a propaganda gift for jihadists.

By removing these clips, YouTube is playing straight into the hands of conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, censorship also buttresses the perception among ISIS and al Qaeda supporters, that the West feels threatened by “the truth.”

It’s worth remembering the trajectory Awlaki followed which eventually led to him promoting terrorism from Yemen.

In 2000, he supported George Bush’s campaign to become president and after 9/11 believed his own emerging role must be to serve as bridge between America and all Muslims.

Last August, Scott Shane wrote:

At midnight on Sept. 14, 2001, Awlaki, then a young Yemeni-American imam at the prominent Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., finished a long day by answering an email from his younger brother about the terrorist attacks of a few days before. ‘‘I personally think it was horrible,’’ he wrote to Ammar, a college student in New Mexico at the time. ‘‘I am very upset about it.’’ He added, ‘‘The media are all over us.’’ Anwar was disconcerted, but perhaps also pleased that an onslaught of reporters had turned his Friday prayers, or jummah, into a circus. ‘‘At jummah today we had ABC, NBC, CBS and The Washington Post.’’ He closed on a positive note, hinting at a noble purpose, to be sure, but also displaying a trace of personal ambition: ‘‘I hope we can use this for the good of all of us.’’

Though the country was in mourning, a sense of defiant unity emerged. A non-Muslim neighbor of Dar al-Hijrah organized a candlelight vigil around the building to show solidarity with the mosque. Roughly 80 residents of a nearby apartment building sent over a note saying, ‘‘We want your congregation to know that we welcome you in this community.’’ Journalists, hunting for an authoritative voice from the Muslim community, began to pass regularly under the mosque’s grand marble arches or to gather in Awlaki’s modest family home. He denounced the 9/11 attacks but in the same breath would criticize America’s record in the Middle East. Reporters were impressed. The New York Times wrote that Awlaki, just 30, was being ‘‘held up as a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.’’ He relished the spotlight. He seemed to be quite self-consciously auditioning for a dual role: explainer of Islam to America and of America to Muslims. ‘‘We came here to build, not to destroy,’’ he declared from his pulpit. ‘‘We are the bridge between America and one billion Muslims worldwide.’’

The challenge presented by ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups is more than one of security and communications. At its core, this is a moral challenge.

The jihadists present themselves as offering the solution to a moral problem: a way for Muslims to confront the immorality, corruption, and hypocrisy they see in the contemporary Western-dominated world.

An effective counter-jihadist strategy cannot simply brush off this critique of the West. It has to present an alternative solution.

Currently, who has the more credible voice? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Anwar al-Awlaki?

Unfortunately, it’s Awlaki.

As Shane observed:

Awlaki’s pronouncements seem to carry greater authority today than when he was living, because America killed him.

Right now, it’s easy to castigate Trump for providing terrorists with fodder for propaganda, but we mustn’t forget the extent to which the U.S. led by Bush and then Obama, has helped reinforce the jihadists’ narrative — by opening Guantanamo; through the use of torture, rendition and secret prisons; through the disastrous war in Iraq; through drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia; through continuing to prop up authoritarian regimes across the Middle East; through allowing the Assad regime to destroy Syria, and through failing to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The real challenge for Western political leaders and whoever becomes the next U.S. president is not whether they can destroy ISIS and effectively tackle global terrorism.

It is this: How can they regain sufficient moral authority that their words carry weight? How can they restore some much-needed respect for democracy?

In a global failure of governance, the Middle East can be viewed as the emergency room, while in the West, governance suffers from chronic illness for which symptom-relief is the only treatment on offer.

It’s time we face up to the fact that terrorism is just a symptom what ails the world. Indeed, much of the time a global obsession with terrorism is having the effect of turning our attention away from broader issues that undermine the health of societies and our ability to survive on this planet.

This isn’t a question of striving for some kind of unattainable and contestable moral purity. No one wants to live under the control of zealots. It’s about trying to create societies in which government is no longer a dirty word, where ordinary citizens receive the respect they deserve, and in which individuals are no longer cynical about the possibilities for securing collective interests.

In a word, it’s about the restoration of honesty in public life.

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What Twitter really means for ISIS supporters

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Amarnath Amarasingam writes: Abu Ahmad, one of Islamic State’s most active supporters online says he has had over 90 Twitter accounts suspended, but is not planning to slow down. He is a trusted member of what has come to be called the Baqiya family, a loose network of Islamic State supporters from around the world who share news, develop close friendships, and help each other when members get arrested or come under law enforcement surveillance. Abu Ahmad, as with all Baqiya members, agreed to talk to me on the condition that his real name and location not be published.

While Islamic State social media accounts used to flourish, Twitter has now been suspending the accounts of fighters and supporters alike. Scholars and analysts continue to debate whether this is effective and worthwhile.

For over two years now, I have co-directed a study of Western foreign fighters based at the University of Waterloo and have been interviewing — on Skype and various text messaging platforms — several dozen fighters and members of this Baqiya family. A few things are clear: First, while Twitter suspensions certainly disrupt their ability to seamlessly spread information, they have developed innovative and effective ways of coming back online. Second, these youth receive an enormous amount of emotional and social benefits from participating in their online “family.”

This online network is important for spreading the new Twitter accounts of individuals coming back from suspension. Watching Abu Ahmad’s accounts, for instance, I have been amazed at how quickly he is able to re-acquire his followers. At times, his new accounts are only active for a day or two before getting suspended again, but he manages to get most of his 1,000-plus followers back every time. “I follow people, and they follow me back. We do shout outs,” he told me during an interview last month; “we also have secret groups online which don’t get suspended, and we share our new accounts on there.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s countercultural appeal is real

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Simon Cottee writes: If you want to get a sense of what attracts westernized Muslims to ISIS, you could do worse than listen to one of its sympathizers, as opposed to its legion of opponents, who are liable to pathologize the group’s appeal as an ideological contagion that infects the weak, instead of taking it seriously as a revolutionary movement that speaks to the young and the strong-minded.

Check out, as just one of many examples, the Twitter user “Bint Emergent”: an apparent ISIS fangirl and keen observer of the jihadist scene. (Bint Emergent has not disclosed her identity, or gender, but bint is an honorific Arabic word for girl or daughter; like umm — mother in Arabic — bint features prominently in the Twitter display names of female ISIS sympathizers.)

“Jihadis,” she explains on her blog BintChaos, “look cool — like ninjas or video game warriors — gangstah and thuggish even — the opposition doesnt.” She concedes that “There aren’t a lot of jihadist ‘poster-girls’ displayed—they all wear niqab [face veil], but sometimes its tastefully accessorized with an AK47 or a bomb belt.” By contrast, “Team CVE [a reference to Countering Violent Extremism, or Anglo-American counterterrorism entrepreneurs whose role, state- or self-appointed, is to challenge “extremist” narratives],” consists “mostly [of] middleaged white guys with a smidgin of scared straight ex-mujahids [ex-jihadists] and a couple middleaged women.” [Continue reading…]

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How a misreported story is changing U.S. immigration policy

The Atlantic reports: On Sunday, The New York Times published a scorching story alleging that one of the killers in the San Bernardino attack had previously “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”

But by Thursday, the Times admitted it had gotten parts of the story wrong. Tashfeen Malik had not posted publicly about violent jihad before moving to the U.S. Instead, according to the FBI, she had written about violent jihad only in private messages—not public posts. The Times changed its story, issued a correction, and endured a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal pub­lic flog­ging at the hands of its public editor.

That correction, however, came far too late to put the genie back in the bottle. News of the so-called “public” posts had already rocketed around the Internet, been cited repeatedly in the Republican presidential debate, and, apparently, made quite an impression on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, Senator John McCain pointed to the Times report in an­noun­cing legislation to require the Department of Homeland Security to “search all public records, including Internet sites and social media profiles” when vetting applicants to enter the U.S.

The same day, nearly two dozen Democrats wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson calling for “more robust social media background check process for all visitors and immigrants to the United States.” The let­ter references press ac­counts in­dic­at­ing that such work had been done inconsistently. And it says Ma­lik “may have ex­pressed rad­ic­al ji­hadist sentiments on so­cial me­dia platforms.” [Continue reading…]

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Brave New China: The most disturbing tech story of 2015

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The New Republic reports: China wants to get in on the credit racket. At the moment, most Chinese citizens don’t have credit scores, unlike in the United States, where they have been part of the consumer landscape for decades, led by the big three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The Chinese government aims to fix that and fast, establishing a nationwide credit scoring system, known as the Social Credit System (SCS), by 2020.

As with China’s vast construction projects, this scoring system is fiercely ambitious, authoritarian, technologically sophisticated, and likely to disrupt the lives of millions of people. And although it is a deeply capitalist undertaking, the SCS is being positioned as a socialist effort. A 2014 planning document states that “a social credit system is an important component part of the Socialist market economy system” and that “its inherent requirements are establishing the idea of an sincerity culture, and carrying forward sincerity and traditional virtues.” That vague phrasing actually speaks to the scope of the project. With “social credit,” the Chinese authorities plan to do more than gauge people’s finances; they want to rate the trustworthiness of citizens in all facets of life, from business deals to social behavior. Eventually, all Chinese citizens will be required to be part of the SCS.

As of now, the Chinese government is allowing select companies to roll out test projects designed to rate individuals’ trustworthiness. These include efforts by Baidu and Alibaba, respectively the country’s largest search engine and e-commerce site. The involvement of these tech companies is key. Credit scoring in the U.S. has long graduated beyond simple matters of credit card debt or bankruptcy history. The credit bureaus now double as some of the country’s biggest data brokers, and they consider a range of consumer activity when creating their proprietary scores. The scores themselves have grown in value, now being used for anything from rating credit worthiness to evaluating one’s fitness for a job (some states, including New York, have banned the use of credit scores in job screenings). As a consequence many forms of consumer scoring now lie outside existing consumer protections, as a World Privacy Forum report found last year.

China’s Social Credit System promises to build on these techniques, using the vast behavioral records of its people to rate them — as consumers, as citizens, as human beings. According to that same planning document, the SCS will be used “to encourage keeping trust and punish breaking trust,” which includes violations of the “social order.” In other words, everything Chinese citizens do, especially online, may be incorporated into their scores. Doctors, teachers, construction firms, scientists, and tourism employees will be scored. So will sports figures, NGOs, companies, members of the judicial system, and government administrators.

Approved behaviors and purchases will raise a score; other activities may lower it, perhaps drawing the unwanted attention of authorities in the process. Scores in turn will be used for employment, disbursing credit, and determining eligibility for social benefits. While the Chinese government has frequently touted its desire to create “a culture of sincerity” and “trust,” the plan uses surveillance, data collection, online monitoring, and behavioral tracking to render practically all of its citizens’ affairs in market terms. Rather than being equal, China’s citizens will be in fierce competition with one another, jostling for rankings better than their peers. [Continue reading…]

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