Jennifer Williams, an American from Texas, logged into her Twitter account last Thursday to find that the 40 followers she had at the beginning of the week had exploded into more than 5,000. Williams, a researcher with the D.C.-based Brookings Institute, has spent her career researching religious extremism and the ongoing struggles against radical Islam in the Middle East. Three years ago, after realizing that she had never once read the Quran, despite her field of study, Williams read the religious text — and shortly thereafter converted to Islam.
Flash forward to Wednesday of last week: Williams took notice of the trending #MuslimApologies campaign, a social effort driven by Muslims who were tired of having to apologize for the actions of jihadi radicals. Sympathizing with the campaign, Williams tweeted, “Sorry I read the Quran to learn abt [sic] terrorist beliefs but ended up converting to Islam b/c of what it said #MuslimApologies #SorryNotSorry.”
Immediate response to the tweet was meager, but as of Friday, it had been shared more than 12,000 times and “favorited” another 5,000. Williams, originally pleased by the virality of her tweet, quickly became dismayed when she realized that many of those sharing her statement used the black flag of ISIS, the Islamic State in Syria, as their profile photo. Overnight, Williams had become an unwitting spokesperson of religious extremism.
Twitter Now a Powerful Tool for Tracking Threats, Recruiting Extremists
Williams’s situation highlights the growing use of social media to help spread radical ideology. Just as business owners across the world use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to promote their brands and gain a following, ISIS and groups like it have found social media to be a powerful advertising and recruitment tool.
Recognizing this, private organizations and national governments are increasingly looking to social media to gather intelligence and prevent terrorist activity. A 14-year-old Dutch girl jokingly tweeted that she was a member of Al-Qaeda in April of this year, threatening American Airlines with an impending attack. She was promptly arrested.
U.S. intelligence officers use social media to determine when and where ISIS and other extremist organizations are operating, to establish whether or not strikes on leaders have been successful, and to learn about organizations’ command structures. As much as social media is a platform for social justice movements like #MuslimApologies, it’s also a powerful tool for both sides of the ongoing “War on Terror,” something Jennifer Williams learned firsthand.
Does it surprise you to know that Twitter, Facebook, and the like are such powerful tools for groups like ISIS? Tell us why or why not in the comment section below.