Social Marketing and Terrorism

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How has social marketing contributed to terrorism?

How has social marketing contributed to terrorism?

Terror attacks have been seen as an increasingly common occurrence around the world. This month alone, we have had bombings across Belgium, Turkey, and Pakistan. One thing clear about the groups behind these attacks is that their recruiting strategies are alarmingly effective.

But how exactly did they convince so many to join? How can social marketing be used as a tool in terrorism and security studies? Julian Macharia, a Kenyan based media specialist/consultant shares with us how social marketing has played a part in terrorism.


Social marketing and terrorism

I believe the success behind recruiting young people into radical ideologies is founded on social marketing. Using the power of familiar voices/spaces makes it easier to gain trust and an audience. Since these radical messages are often considered illegal in many quarters, thus they have been forced to be creative and innovative on how they seed these ideas.

A full frontal approach may be repulsed, but with social marketing, it is small subtle suggestions or hints over time in an authentic or familiar space. Sometimes the subject is even unaware they are being sold to an idea until they have already bought it. Traditional marketing can be easily spotted as it often has a specific ask of the recipient. Whereas with social marketing, it is a change in attitude, perspective, igniting of emotions or challenging ideologies.

(Unfortunately, I do not have hard data sets to support this. But if the current wave of radicalized groups is anything to go by… Yes. It works.)

The use of technology by militant groups

Technology has created a space that is so far not regulated. Social media can both be extremely open or as closed as you may want it to be. This allows militant groups to create spaces where they can carry their agenda. It’s almost impossible to track or hack as it is such a wide ocean. For example, one can activate and disable accounts in seconds with no trace back to the source.

Previously, you had to meet in person, use couriers or spies or through a phone that was linked to a number and a subscriber profile. With social media/digital, you can create anonymous accounts and operate from anywhere in the world.

Content transparency on social networks

I think the debate of Privacy is more Hue and cry.

When joining most platforms/apps, the ‘terms and conditions’ (which people rarely read-unfortunately. They are often also very long and use complex language) state what your data will be used for and the privacy they allow. I think if you entered a glass-walled shower cube that is out in the open then complained about privacy, we would ask, “Didn’t you notice it was transparent”?

That said, expecting privacy from an open system is also impractical. If you want privacy, look for a closed system that enables one to control their information and those that access it.

I suspect radicals engage in open systems then move the conversation to more closed systems from consumer based social chat groups to more complex like the mysterious “dark web”.

After all, social networks are supposed to be social. I do not think it is in the interest of developers to make it hard to find out information about people within the same network. They should constantly be trying to integrate a person’s diverse profiles into one place platform (think google, youtube, Google+, Android, etc.).


How militant groups use social marketing

As social media is a personal space and is for networking, they approach recruits not as an organization but as a friend, confidant or peer who shares the same background/feelings or frustrations. I believe it begins with a normal contact, and it develops into friendship. After which you begin to define the relationship and its dynamics. Soon they begin to influence each other’s choices and views on the world on different subjects. The only difference in the relationship is that one party has a very clear agenda from the start, whereas the recruit may just be letting things happen/go with the flow. It will go on until one day they are aligned and perhaps move from just conversation to real action.

This model also gives them time to understand or read the recruit and see how they can exploit their personality and sentiments to their advantage.

Campaigns for tolerance

Since we have yet to figure out the tipping point or what makes people radicalized in the first place, a lot of the online interventions are not necessarily solutions. Not that they do not contribute to tipping the scale….. I often wonder if you are ready for radicalization, what kind of content are you consuming? Is the message getting to you?

Another big challenge is that online campaigns are tracking effect. The change also takes time and this ‘time’ is undefined. I theorize that radicalization has been going on for over 20 years. But perhaps in the last five years that have we started discovering that they are tech savvy, connected and plugged in.

Watching CNN recently after the Brussels attacks, the security expert said that the terrorists were using a new technology/app called WhatsApp which is virtually impossible to intercept. In Kenya, we have had it for close to 3 years! So it appears the security forces are either many steps behind or looking in the wrong places and making assumptions of who a terrorist looks like, operates and behaves.

I think the government needs to find a way to reach key influencer’s to reach potential deviants. They need to be people who have the authority (Religious leaders, elders and peers) to challenge these ideologies. The government can’t be seen to be intervening as a lot of their current challenges can be attributed to that same Government. It thus has to appear organic and authentic-not top down.

Watch something trending in Nairobi

Countering terrorism

I do not believe there is any specific intervention that can be done online. I would focus my energies on the people, not the “channel” used for radicalization. It begins by challenging the same target audience on the truth behind the wrong Ideologies and half-truths sometimes propagated by militant groups. Militant groups are striking a nerve that is relevant, using an authentic voice and connecting with youth by giving them a sense of purpose, identity, etc.

These are roles people expect from their Governments and leaders; they are thus disgruntled, marginalized and disenfranchised. Thus, it has to be a collection of interventions that address the extrinsic-issues (Unemployment, land, historical injustices) than the intrinsic issues (ideology, sense of identity, purpose, hope).