The Arab Spring of 2011 generated a flood of news articles and academic papers about the new role of social media such as Facebook and Twitter in organizing resistance to authoritarian governments. Terrorists can use the same tech tools for communication and planning – and increasingly, they are bypassing common U.S.-based platforms, which are heavily censored and monitored.
Terror groups such as Islamic State still use the U.S.-based networks for propaganda and recruitment, but they’ve shifted their more serious operational content elsewhere — to the Russian-designed, encrypted Telegram messenger and — no joke — the Sony PlayStation 4 game console. If intelligence services succeed in convincing legislators to ban commercial encryption, the terrorists will find new, even more esoteric software.
As Paris came under attack on Friday, the social networks scrambled to delete celebratory tweets and threats from Islamic State supporters, who used a Twitter that meant, in English, “Paris on fire.” The censorship is by now customary, and it’s clear that pro-Islamic-State accounts are being monitored. They are known to organizations such as the SITE Intelligence Group, and undoubtedly to the intelligence services, too.
That means Islamic State supporters can use the U.S.-based networks only in limited ways. One of them recently suggested using anonymous accounts that wouldn’t be easy to identify as pro-IS, but would be known to supporters through a number of pre-agreed hashtags. That would probably require too much coordination to work on a large scale, so IS propaganda will continue to be disseminated on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, even though these aren’t reliable channels.
Telegram is. The messenger, available since 2013, uses encryption in a way that doesn’t allow even employees of the app to access the content of private messages and group chats, which can include up to 200 people. It also has Snapchat-like functionality, allowing users to send messages that self-destruct after a while.
It was developed by Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the brothers behind Russia’s most popular social network, Vkontakte. It is run out of Berlin, but it has been especially popular in Central Asia and the Arab world. According to App Annie, the top five countries where Telegram’s Android app has gained the most traction are Iran, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen. Last month, Iran blocked the messenger, according to Durov, because Telegram refused to allow Iranian intelligence services to get in through a backdoor. It’s also unavailable in China. It works well elsewhere, though, and has about 60 million users.
Asked in September whether he slept easily knowing IS used his product, Durov replied that “privacy, ultimately, and our right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism.” “Ultimately,” he told Techcrunch, “the ISIS will always find a way to communicate within themselves.”
Also in September, Telegram introduced “channels,” which let a user send out messages visible to an unlimited number of others. That clinched it for the jihadists, who could now use the secure messenger not just for direct communication but also as a propaganda tool. In late October, the Middle East Media Research Institute reported that both Islamic State and al-Qaida were shifting their activity to Telegramand explained that the messenger’s features effectively prevented any attempts to counteract jihadist activity. A month after the channels were introduced, IS’s main ones already had tens of thousands of users.
On Monday, a Russian legislator asked the Federal Security Service to block Telegram in Russia. Durov’s reaction: “So let’s ban words. I hear terrorists communicate using them.”
The Paris terrorists may have relied on an altogether different tool to plan the attack: the chat function of the PlayStation 4. Days before the bloodbath, Belgium’s deputy prime minister, Jan Jambon, said in an interview with Politico that this method was increasingly popular and hard to track. In a search of a home in Belgium linked to the Nov. 13 terrorists, reports suggested investigators had seized a PlayStation 4. It’s only a hypothesis that it was used to plan the attacks, but a plausible one.
Tech platforms have their own ideologies – Facebook, for example, is tough on hate speech, while Telegram puts privacy above all. Nor are they stateless, even though they may seem global. The National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has shown that U.S. companies cooperate with the government. Defiance is rare, legally tricky and jurisdiction-dependent. Not just terrorists but also protesters and insurgents who are unfriendly to the U.S. soon may no longer use American services for anything important, relying instead on more secure channels.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.