Interactive Propaganda

For years now extremist websites have been spreading the word of Osama bin Laden via his video messages. Now the propaganda of hate and violence is also turning increasingly to the so-called Web 2.0. Jens Rosbach reports

Militant Islamists (photo: AP)
Spreading their message of hate across the world: many radical Islamists are targeting Web 2.0 as a way of spreading their propaganda

​​ To the strains of Arab-Islamic melodies a masked Muslim sings about Jihadism, his song providing the background to images of Islamic terrorist attacks.

Jens Kutscher, lecturer in law at the University of Erlangen, came across the Islamist propaganda film on YouTube, together with hundreds of others of a similar nature calling for armed struggle to be taken up against the USA and the rest of the western world.

He has seen many videos that abuse religion for the purpose of spreading Islamist propaganda. "They make reference to early Islamic history, for instance, and give examples of campaigns conducted by the Prophet Mohammad against his non-Muslim contemporaries. These are then used to create associations with today's situation where it has again become possible for Muslims to strike back against non-Muslims," Kutscher explains.

Anti-Semitic videos

The Islamist films contain messages and comments from Muslims all over the world inciting and glorifying violence. One Internet user praises the terrorist video with the words: "Thanks be to Allah! Take more fire, more fire, more fire! Ha, ha, ha! The video is brilliant!"

Laptop computer (photo: AP)
War on the world wide web: the forces ranged against the Islamists in Web 2.0 are growing, and exposing the violent propaganda

​​ And it's not just on YouTube that the Islamists have found a home. Facebook, the world's largest social networking website, has also become a hive of Islamist activity. Individuals can create their own profiles, send emails and form themselves into groups. Even the kind of groups who are interested only in openly preaching their message of hostility and violence. Hamburg-based journalist Christoph Gunkel encountered one such virtual group last year.

In a yeshiva, a religious school in Jerusalem, a radical Palestinian by the name of Abu Dhaim murdered eight people in a suicide bomb attack. "Shortly thereafter a group appeared on Facebook, praising the murderer as a martyr. And then, of course, members of these groups also have the opportunity to make comments or post photos and videos. And these very often have an anti-Semitic background," says Gunkel.

Virtual weapons in "Second Life"

The expert believes it is precisely this interactive nature of Web 2.0 that makes it so dangerous. A group once appeared on Facebook, for instance, claiming that Israel was not a proper state. "At times the group had up to 60,000 members. And all these members are contacted again and again. So I think it is safe to say that this sort of ability to spread a particular message is not without its dangers."

The virtual Internet world of "Second Life" presents a similar problem. Its fictional characters occupy fictional houses in imaginary places. There is, for example, a shop in Second Life with the name of "Arabian Exclusive Shop". The shop advertises virtual militaria and weaponry including Taliban clothing, Jihad weapons and weapons of mass destruction.

Web 2.0 difficult to control

The problem is that there are hardly any measures to stop Islamists from spreading their propaganda on Web 2.0. Those responsible for the protection of young people, or of the constitution, and whose job it is to investigate the "normal Internet" have tended to give up the ghost when it comes to the complexity and difficulty of trying to police the Web 2.0 networks.

Militant Islamists in a propaganda video spread via the Internet (photo: AP)
Digital Jihad - a new generation of Islamic extremists has emerged, based in and nurtured by the Internet.

​​ According to Internet specialist Burkhard Schröder from Berlin it would be a massive and time-consuming task to create personal profiles, set up contact with suspicious groups and document pertinent material. In the case of "Second Life" especially, this would be highly problematic, he says.

"I needed six months just to understand the software, which can be very complex. And just finding out how virtual communities are formed is anything but easy. Much of what goes on is hidden."

Counter movements paralyse homepages

And so it is left to the dedicated Internet users themselves to offer resistance to the Islamist purveyors of virtual hate. Take for example the reaction of a YouTube member who decries a Jihadist video and writes: "Very funny! Do you really believe that you will get into paradise by killing people who don't worship the same mythical God as yourselves?"

In the meantime the forces ranged against the Islamists in Web 2.0 are growing, seeking confrontation, exposing the violent propaganda for what it is and parodying the hate films. Some Internet freaks, from Israel for example, are turning to unconventional methods. They hijack the Islamist online networks, paralysing them and their message. Until the next Islamist group comes along that is.

Jens Rosbach

© Deutsche Welle / 2009

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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