Al Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups are active on Facebook, YouTube and other social media, but that doesn’t mean they’re making much impact, experts testified before a House panel Tuesday.
Internet discussions are a poor replacement for in-person extremist recruiting because they lack the same level of intimidation and peer pressure, Brian Jenkins, a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation testified before the Homeland Security subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
“Before the Internet people had to actually meet each other face to face and that plays an important role,” Jenkins said. “The Internet doesn’t have the same power because you can turn it off whenever you want to. You can play at jihadism but not be propelled into it by that face-to-face peer pressure.”
“The internet is not a vector of Al Qaeda infections,” he said. “People come to it because they’re searching for something. They’re looking for sites and they find sites that resonate with their beliefs . . . It will reinforce their radicalization but, by itself, the Internet doesn’t get them all the way there.”
The subcommittee’s ranking member Jackie Speier, D-Calif., asked about the case of five Alexandria, Va.-area Americans who were convicted by a Pakistani court in 2010 of traveling to that country to commit terrorist acts. Pakistani officials claim those men visited numerous jihadi websites before their trip.
The fact that the five men traveled together likely played a key role, said Andrew Weisburd, director of the Society for Internet Research.
“Five individuals collectively can get their act together to do that,” he said. “For one guy to do that would be scary. It takes a lot of courage to do something that risky.”
Facebook, YouTube and other U.S.-based social media sites are, if anything, more difficult places to recruit extremists because they’re designed as open forums where other posters or commenters can challenge radical ideas. Most extremist websites, by contrast, ban posters with opposing viewpoints, the experts said.
U.S. government efforts are better directed at using social media as another form of intelligence to learn about terrorist organizations than at shutting down the sites themselves or trying to keep extremist ideology off social media, experts agreed.
“The vast majority of people who watch and read al-Qaeda propaganda will never act violently because of it,” William McCants, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, said in prepared testimony. “Put metaphorically, the material may be incendiary but nearly everyone is fireproof.”