The future of warfare: online toxicity precedes violence

Image by Pietro Fanelli

The Internet, and in particular social media, are platforms of empowerment and virtual aggregation. They are tools that enable individuals not only to make their voices heard, but to feel like they belong to a group. Arguably, it is rather difficult to feel alone on the Internet. The hashtag itself has been designed to facilitate aggregation and to gather everyone who believes in a similar ideology under the same digital umbrella. The thing is, this aggregation isn’t always for the better. From #yogaeverydamnday or #happywifehappylife to #AllEyesOnISIS, there is a darker side to the far reaching hashtag.

If the Internet allows positive discourses to rise, it also triggers the spread of what has been called ‘online toxicity’, namely the circulation of verbal and visual violence that infiltrate the web and poisons the virtual realm. Insults, cyber-bullying, violence incitement, and the widespread circulation of hatred and vicious acts are just some of the examples of what can be considered as online toxicity. While most of this online toxicity – despite being upsetting in a very real way IRL – often remains within the web. But the danger of virtual violence is that it could easily fuel hatred and trigger actual violence to take place in the ‘physical’ world.

The perfect example of this kind of phenomenon – the transposition of online toxicity into hurtful IRL violence – is Daesh’s (ISIS) use of social media. The organisation developed a communication strategy for recruiting soldiers and increasing their popularity in a manner so successful that can be envied by brands and corporations alike. The Islamic State has been extremely sharp in making sure that its recruiting message was delivered to the right audience: vulnerable, often socially excluded, young men and women. With data confirming that over 30,000 fighters from all over the world have voluntarily joined ISIS after being lured into its ideology by appealing online campaigns, it's now undeniable that their social media strategy has proven extremely successful.

And while 30,000 followers wouldn’t be considered that many on Instagram, 30,000 physical people who abandoned their lives to join a murderous war, speaks of a bigger issue. And as we all know, with its social presence aside, the Islamic State doesn’t only fight with tweet and comments, but with drones and AK47s too.

What makes ISIS so different from other military groups is that its attitude mirrors that of any other successful company today. As accurately stated by journalist Brendan I. Koerner, “Unlike al Qaeda, which has generally been methodical about organizing and controlling its terror cells, the more opportunistic Islamic State is content to crowdsource its social media activity—and its violence—out to individuals with whom it has no concrete ties.”

ISIS has flawlessly branded itself and opted for a rather neoliberal marketing approach: to join the group, an individual doesn’t need be officially accepted, all that is required is a spontaneous will to praise Daesh and you're in. Through social media, apparently normal individuals felt empowered to enact terror attacks on behalf of ISIS, and this makes the organisation’s activity fragmented and therefore extremely hard to foresee. But one thing is certain, in order to counter this phenomenon, state governments and international security agencies need to intervene where ISIS is stronger: online.