Interview: Political and ideological extremism in cyberspace

Interview: Political and ideological extremism in cyberspace

Earlier this week, our marketing team interviewed SAIL LABS Technology employee, Alexander O. During our meeting, Alexander answered a few questions regarding political and ideological extremism in cyberspace.

Alexander O. works as Business Development Manager and OSINT Trainer at SAIL LABS Technology. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Vienna University of Business and Economics in Business Administration. His education and professional career enabled him to attain international experience and work placements in Istanbul, Johannesburg, Brussels, Washington DC and London. Furthermore, he obtained a Master’s degree in Security & Intelligence Studies from the BUCSIS Center for Security Studies at the University of Buckingham.

Find out more about SAIL LABS OSINT Trainings by clicking here.

Q: What are the current tactics applied by political and ideological extremists in cyberspace?

AO: In order to answer this question, I would differentiate between highly ideological extremist and terrorist groups on one hand and foreign state actors on the other. The internet significantly changed the way the first group communicates, radicalizes, recruits and spreads propaganda. The other group utilizes extremist and right-wing propaganda as a means to achieve their objective such as trying to subvert democracy, polarize society and create division as seen in the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum. This differentiation is needed to not mix up the mainly overt tactics of terrorist groups online (e.g. publishing entire magazines such as Inspire Magazine) and organized covert disinformation campaigns by foreign actors, because the tactics are inherently different. While someone affiliated with a terrorist organization might approach you online and convince you to join their cause, the disinformation campaign aims to make you vote for someone or something without even realizing. Vladislav Surkov, advisor to Putin put it like this: “[We] interfere in your brains, we change your conscience, and there is nothing you can do about it.”


Q: Does the recent case of the teenager Shamima Begum raise the question if women’s activities on supporting extremism might be often overlooked?

AO: This is certainly the case. I do believe that women, not only in Jihadism, but also on the left and right-wing spectrum play a big role. However, those roles differ quite a lot. In Jihadism, the role of the woman is predominantly of a supporting nature, mainly focused on recruitment of other women and romanticized propaganda from the battlefield. Although pictures of armed Jihadi women do exist, rather than as fighters, they are used as enforcers of sharia law and strict dress codes amongst other women. In some cases, they are also used as suicide bombers. Quite contrary to this, in case of the left-wing terrorist group PKK, women are considered equal to man and make up about 40% of their fighters.

Q: During the last years, there has been an increase both in the number of active extreme right-wing women as well as a growth in the number of women‘s groups on the extreme right-wing scene. What do you think about the accuracy of data about women’s involvement in extreme right-wing organizations?

AO: If we are looking at right-wing populist and extremist culture, women have a very different role than in Jihadism. Although some compare the role of women in Jihadism and right-wing extremism, I do not agree with this comparison. Sure, there are similarities of a very conservative mindset and the view of women being only good for giving birth and pleasing their husbands, but in populist right-wing culture women are increasingly portrayed as independent and strong characters. This is especially valid for the United States, more so than in Europe. Brittany Pettibone would be a good example of such a public figure, utilizing social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to spread her divisive message. Being engaged to Martin Sellner, the highly controversial leader of the Austrian Identitarian movement, they now form a transatlantic right-wing couple. Similar to Brittany Pettibone, I would also like to mention Maram Susli, who operates under the name of Syrian Girl/PartisanGirl and regularly publishes right-wing conspiracy theories about the Middle East and is an ardent supporter of Bashar al-Assad as well as Donald Trump. I do think that the evolvement of the role of women in right-wing extremism is designed to add legitimacy (in their view) to their cause, making them appear as if they have reached mainstream society, rather than being an ‘angry white single male phenomenon’, like the incel fringe movement for example. I do expect to see more right-wing poster girls appear in Europe in the near future.

Q: Do you think that social media providers should be more active when it comes to preventing violent content to be spread on social media?

AO: I do think that violent content on social media is a very sensitive and controversial issue. While some think that removing such content might be the smartest move, others criticize this as an attack on free speech and bemoan censorship. In the case of the New Zealand mosque attack, video footage of the attack was livestreamed on Facebook. Social media platforms have to make sure that software is being developed that can detect abnormal behavior, violence and graphic content especially in livestreams. Out of 200 viewers, nobody reported the livestream to Facebook. This makes it obvious that we cannot trust humans to take action in such situations. A mechanism to automatically alert law enforcement monitoring centers is needed – artificial intelligence will contribute significantly to this challenge of timely sharing sensitive information.  

Q: How did the nature and strategies of extremism change with digitalization and establishment of social media?

AO: In context of the US presidential election we have seen hostile foreign actors creating an information environment and narrative. This narrative is aiming to spread division and activate or suppress target groups. The consistent exposure over a long period of time is impacting a person’s cognitive environment. Another common tactic is mainstreaming an idea, moving it from the fringe to the mainstream. This was applied to various conspiracy theories from Pizzagate, to Benghazi and Hilary’s Emails. Interestingly enough, more than half of the fraudulent posts surrounding the US presidential election were about race. In a highly sophisticated campaign, the foreign actor addressed White Supremacists, Black Lives Matter activists, as well as Muslim activists and played them against each other.

Q: During your presentation at the first OSINT Training – The SAIL Way you mentioned the case of Maria Butina, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Russian federation. According to your opinion, should national securities’ apparatuses be more active in monitoring activities of non-profit organizations to prevent infiltration of national decision-making to advance foreign agendas?

AO: I think the NRA is not the best example for a non-profit organization. Although it is indeed a non-profit organization according US law, it is currently being investigated for allegedly violating this non-profit status. The NRA is designated as a “social welfare organization”, however, some would argue it is a lobbying organization for the weapons manufacturer industry. While there are claims that Russian agents have infiltrated this organization in order to lobby for Russian interests in Washington DC, this example should not be used to suppress or monitor legitimate civil rights movements or the much-needed work of NPOs and NGOs. However, the intelligence services need to identify organizations that are prone to foreign subversion, and take measures to safeguard their integrity. Organizations that are likely being subverted by foreign actors would be those with close ties to politics and the national decision making-apparatus – be it lobbying groups, think tanks or others. In that regard, the NRA was the perfect target.

Q: Do you think that national governments’ response to foreign aims to shift the public opinion on social media should include their own campaigns to promote democracy, or rather focus on identifying fraudulent campaigns, or the combination of both approaches?

AO: I am under the impression that merely reacting to fake news and disinformation is not the right move and is not likely to deliver the desired results. I strongly believe that a combination of both fact-checking and pro-actively shaping the narrative would be the most suitable. In light of the Brexit referendum, both the European Union and the Remain campaign would have been well advised to debunk the lies and disinformation told about the European Union by the Leave Campaign and others. Obviously, the pro-active approach of spreading a narrative can potentially be abused and should only take place under a strict set of rules and in accordance with the respective laws.   

Q: What would you recommend to social media users so that they would not believe fake news?

AO: Many are working on different tools to help the user in determining source credibility. Machine learning and natural language processing can and will help users in the future by using story clustering techniques to automatically find similar articles, as well as spotting commonly used words and ranking sources and authors by the correctness of past publications. For now, fact-checking can be done manually by researching the webpage, author and if other more reputable news outlets have reported similar things. Weird advertisements, donation requests, online shops, low-quality images and bad web design can also give a clue. However, there are several kinds of fake news webpages. Some trying to fool the reader by using names, logos and URLs similar to reputable news outlets. Others, such as Infowars openly claiming to report against the ‘mainstream media’ and offering an alternative view.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee  and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SAIL LABS Technology.