Title: Swarmcast: How Jihadist Networks Maintain a Persistent Online Presence
Author: Ali Fisher
Date of Publication: 2015
Journal / Publisher: Perspectives on Terrorism Vol 9, No. 3
Country of publication: The Netherlands
Purpose of the study
The article examines the activity of the ‘media mujahedeen’ – the supporters of jihadist groups who disseminate propaganda content online. It shows that the media mujahideen group operates through a dispersed network of accounts which constantly reconfigures much like the way a swarm of bees or flock of birds constantly reorganizes in mid-flight.
This article uses a range of big data techniques including network analysis, combined with examples of Jihadist communication strategy to identify the elements which have allowed groups to maintain a permanent presence for their content online, despite the efforts of western governments working with social media platform providers to prevent terrorist propaganda.
The use of social media
In the Swarmcast model there is no longer a clear division between the audience and a content producer in control of the means through which to broadcast content to that audience. Instead, once content is produced and released, it is often the distributing network of media mujahideen, rather than the original producer, that ensures continuing content availability.
This type of activity can be understood with the help of the concept of netwar; defined as ‘lower-intensity conflict at the societal end of the spectrum’ in which ‘a combatant is organised along networked lines or employs networks for operational control and other communications’.
Creating communities of interest, supporting positive voices, narrowing the space violent extremists have to work in, repeatedly and aggressively presenting the reality of what is going on on the ground.
Future policies to counter the dissemination of Jihadist content must challenge the Swarmcast on a strategic level and take account of all three components of the Swarmcast modus operandi when employing take-downs or other counter-measures. The challenge is not to disrupt the activity of individual members of the media-mujaheden, but to focus on strategic approaches to disrupt the system wide emerging structures and collective behaviours rather than go after individual accounts.
Drawing on the metaphor of a swarm this article introduces the netwar inspired concept of the user curated Swarmcast and demonstrates the role of the Swarmcast in maintaining the persistent presence of Jihadist content online.
Prior to 2011, al-Qa’ida (AQ) had established a “jihadist cloud” which allowed AQ to remain resilient within “its virtual spaces and niches on the Internet”, despite setbacks on physical fronts.
Since 2011 the Syrian conflict, recognised as the most ‘socially mediated’ in history, has developed into the new focal point for jihadi media culture.
As an approach to Netwar, the Swarmcast has proven that it is very hard to deal with, as the media-mujahedeen are able to operate as small, dispersed units that can deploy nimbly—anywhere, anytime.