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Incitement to Violence on Social Networks in the Region

11 October 2016

Despite the vast prospects for the exchange of ideas and opinions offered by the various kinds of social networks since their inception, there are a number of negative repercussions the use of such networks has imposed in some states and societies. The most prominent of these repercussions is the transformation of these social networks in some cases to a mechanism through which to spread extremist views, which can include incitement to violence.

This misuse of social networks, by being employed to aggressively express individual opinions as well as being put to use by extremist currents, has resulted in a number of crises. This is especially in light of the absence of a legal system that protects and regulates the use of social media in a number of states. This absence had led to exaggerated restrictions in some states, as well as a leniency which resulted in the violence spreading from cyberspace to actual violence on the ground.

Perhaps the assassination of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar, on September 25 2016, brings to mind the implications of the phenomenon of incitement to violence on social media. This is especially since this phenomenon has evolved considerably during the last period, and spread due to the revolutions that have taken place in the region. Simultaneously, the difficulty of controlling cyberspace at the current moment has been, and still is, well exploited by extremist groups.  

Multiple Models

The assassination of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar cannot be considered the only incident resulting from incitement to killing on the social network Facebook, despite being the most prominent incident of its kind at the current time due to Facebook’s role as the platform for the controversy that preceded the writer’s assassination. Prior to his assassination, Hattar had posted a caricature on his personal Facebook page titled “God of ISIS”, which was considered by some currents and authorities as insulting to God. The cartoon was met with a campaign of considerable discontent, leading Hattar to delete the sketch and apologize for its publication, saying it was not meant to insult but to ridicule terrorists. This incident led to Hattar’s arrest, before being released on bail. Criticism of the cartoon continued on Facebook by some religious extremist pages, which may have motivated Hattar’s assassin, who states that he had been affected by the publishings of these pages.

In the same context, one cannot separate the assassinations of icons of the Tunisian opposition, for example, from incitement campaigns on social media sites. The assassinations of Chokri Belaid, General Coordinator of the Democratic Patriots party and a member of the Popular Front, in February 2013, and Mohamed Al-brahimi, member of the People’s Movement party in July of the same year, were preceded by campaigns to discredit the Tunisian opposition, its icons, and communist and left wing parties, by accusing them with “anti-religious” and “treason” charges on pages displaying extremist views, particularly those linked to Ansar Al Sharia, who are currently restricted in Tunisia.

It is worth noting that the Jewish community in Tunisia had previously faced, in 2012, hate campaigns on social media platforms, after a fatwa was issued inciting Tunisian youth to “kill Jews and prepare for heaven”. Furthermore, video excerpts of the fatwa, and of the demonstrations supporting it in the Tunisian capital, were widely shared on Facebook and YouTube.

Algeria also witnessed a number of similar campaigns inciting targeted violence, including calls for the killing of the writer Kamal Daoud, after the issuance of a fatwa permitting his assassination by a sheikh (who published on his personal Facebook page), accusing Daoud of “insulting the Quran, fighting Islam, and praising enemies”. The Sheikh also called on “the Algerian government to sentence him to a public execution”. Consequently, the Sheikh was sentenced, in March 2016, to six months in jail, including a three month suspended sentence for incitement to kill.

A report was also issued by Journalists Without Borders in August 2016, calling on the Algerian government to protect Abdo Samar, Editor in Chief of the Algeria Focus news outlet, after death threats directed at him were published on a number of pages. These threats came following a publication from the news outlet mentioning the grant of a villa to the son of the Minister of Housing and Urbanism. Similar campaigns where witnessed in Egypt during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, targeting political and media icons through a number of pages that posted pictures of individuals who received had strong criticism. This is in addition to a different kind of incitement against the state and its official institutions.

Furthermore, Turkish authorities shut down social media networks multiple times over the past two years, due to the increase in incitement of violence and demonstrations, as well as tarnishing the image of the state institutions. This was done through the publication of images and information surrounding the consecutive terrorist explosions that occurred in several Turkish cities and governorates, and also by calling to carry out similar attacks. For example, in July 2015, the Magistrate Criminal Court in Suruc issued a decree restricting Twitter and Facebook for not implementing a previous decree to remove all content related to the Suruc explosion, bordered with Syria. It is worth noting that this content contained calls to demonstrations. The shutdown was repeated several times for the same reasons, the last being during the failed coup attempt in July 2016, where both social platforms were used to encourage the participation and support of the coup prior to being controlled.

Factors of Proliferation

It can be said that a number of factors resulted in the spread of the phenomenon of incitement on social media platforms, which can be highlighted as follows:

  • The broadened scope of the use of social media platforms by terrorist organizations: The use of different social media platforms spreads extremist ideas and incitement to violence, which can be considered as a natural expansion to those extremist organizations’ use of social networks.  At the forefront of these organizations is Al Qaeda, which was successful in using the Internet as recruitment platform to recruit new members from around the world.
  • Increased instability in conflict states: the deterioration of security and political instability witnessed during previous years in conflict states in the region facilitated the expansion of incitement to violence from cyberspace to actual attacks on the ground. This comes after the pledge of allegiance by multiple terrorist organizations to ISIS, which was able to recruit further members and expand its followers through social media.
  • Political Islam’s rise to power in several states in the region: in parallel to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Tunisia, was the reappearance of several extremist groups that were able to expand their followers through social media, posting multiple fatwas of treason and religious segregation.
  • The absence of a legal framework for Internet usage: the lack of a legislative framework in certain regions in regards to Internet usage, has led to an increase in the phenomenon of inciting violence through social networks. However, notable efforts in this regard in some countries have begun to work on combatting calls for violence against persons or institutions, as well as taking the necessary legal actions to punish the perpetrators.

In this context appears the importance of adopting a clear and applicable strategy to limit calls of violence and incitement through social networks, whose content is difficult to control. Perhaps one of the most important strategic mechanisms is to ensure taking punitive action against the instigators of the violence.