They are targeting online users directly and bombarding them with messages in a bid to convert them to their cause, said Dr Maura Conway of Dublin City University, a lecturer in international security.
She said law enforcement agencies, including in Ireland, need to realise the role of social media and develop a targeted, legal response.
“IS have input significant financial and especially human resources into their online campaign,” said Dr Conway.
She said that they produce a large volume of contact every day, targeted at a variety of audiences across a diversity of official, semi-official, and fan accounts.
“The content is not just of the gruesome sort that we learn about in the press — albeit there is plenty of this — but large amounts of IS content is targeted at potential sympathisers.”
She said they seek to demonstrate “the attractiveness of the so-called Islamic State” and thereby encourage potential fighters, as well as women and children and men with other needed skills, “to travel to Syria and help build the ‘caliphate’.”
Irish authorities estimate in the region of 30 to 40 Irish people, many of them teenagers and young adults, have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Dr Conway said the online strategy of IS has recently shifted into another gear.
“They have begun to reach out directly to internet users who express sympathy with their position.”
She said this was “likely to be quite effective”, for a number of reasons:
- It’s more targeted as the individuals have already expressed sympathy with IS;
- Those targeted are “oftentimes young and searching for an identity and meaning in their lives”;
- IS will often “love bomb” such people, by having online supporters flock around the individual and “bombard” them with messages.
Dr Conway said she assumed international law enforcement agencies were “cognisant” of the role of social media in terrorism.
“It certainly seems much more sensible to monitor social media accounts of individuals posing known risks or threats than to engage in the kinds of wholesale surveillance of internet users that some policymakers and others appear to favour.”
Dr Conway said there were “obvious benefits of a specialist Garda unit” monitoring online communication, including basic awareness and identification of actual threats.
“Social media monitoring and analysis can supply law enforcement, policymakers, and others, with useful information on violent extremists’ ideology, key concerns within organisations, responses to specific events, etc. In addition, social media monitoring can uncover actual threats, whether against individual persons, landmarks, or even countries.”
She added: “It would seem prudent for police and other Government agencies to have an awareness of such threats and thus be in a position to assess their seriousness.”
Dr Conway said there was a danger of “function creep”, where the monitoring of terrorism could extend to other areas of citizens’ privacy.
“A balance must be maintained therefore between the requirements of national security and public safety, on the one hand, and citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy and related rights, on the other,” she warned.