This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

The growth of the Internet and the spread of mobile phones have increased social media use in Africa.

Though the increased use of information and communication technology can support social, political and economic development, it may also expose people to the radicalizing influence of violent extremist groups.

Social media can equip terrorists with an operational tool to enlist, train, and communicate with their followers and potential recruits.

Much of the debate over the role of online activities in the radicalization process has been focused on Western countries. Less is known about online behaviours in Africa and the extent to which African national governmental strategies are addressing this issue.

To this end the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) commissioned RAND Europe to explore social media use and online radicalization in Africa as part of its ‘Regional Project on Preventing and Responding to Violent Extremism in Africa’.

RAND Europe’s study examined the links between social media use and online radicalization in seven African countries: Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. With a focus on ISIL, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram – three of the most lethal Islamist militant groups worldwide – the analysis also looked at governmental efforts to address this problem and outlines recommendations for policy and programming.

Three key questions

The study addressed three overarching research questions:

1) What trends can be observed in the use of social media in Africa to contribute to online radicalisation?

2) Have existing counter-radicalisation interventions by African national governments and non-African government agencies: (i) Focused on preventing and responding to online radicalisation? (ii) Built innovative technological approaches into their design?

3) What implications can be drawn for the improvement of existing programmes and design of future programmes aimed at countering online radicalisation?

The research team addressed the questions through a mixed-methods approach based on a literature review and a programme of research interviews.

This was complemented by Twitter analysis, which involved data crawling through targeted search queries, machine-based analysis of the resulting Twitter dataset, and research team interpretation of the results generated.

Findings

Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and ISIL all use social media, albeit to varying degrees and levels of sophistication. ISIL has the most advanced online strategy of the three groups and makes use of the widest range of social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, KiK and justpaste.it.

Al-Shabaab, ISIL and, to a lesser extent, Boko Haram use social media as part of their wider recruitment strategies.

While all three groups use social media to attract recruits, both domestically and internationally, these online influences are often complemented by the ‘offline’ influences of family and peer networks. For example, evidence suggests that ISIL attracts young recruits through the influence of religious leaders.

Social media propaganda is used to claim or publicize attacks or kidnappings, such as Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in April 2014. The groups also use social media propaganda to criticize opponents and demonstrate their tactics.

Recruitment strategies

Al-Shabaab, ISIL and, to a lesser extent, Boko Haram use social media as part of their wider recruitment strategies. Evidence suggests that these groups have increasingly shifted their recruitment activities to private channels following account shutdowns on mainstream social media sites.

While ISIL uses social media to coordinate its messaging and military planning, social media has created challenges for al-Shabaab’s coordination efforts. The growth of the internet has led to a loss of control of the narrative by al-Shabaab leaders, with online activity becoming more decentralised and independent jihadists undermining the group’s messaging.

Fake news

Our Twitter data analysis identified more than 220,000 Tweets on selected dates between 2012 and 2017. The analysis highlights much uncertainty among Twitter users about the veracity of news circulating on social media, and indicates that media-led discussions generated by major attacks are likely to overshadow the more continuous online messaging of terrorist groups.

Countering online radicalisation is an emerging concern for the seven African governments and their overseas partners. It appears that they are only now starting to recognise and respond to this issue.

Several strategies for preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) have been introduced but offer little content specifically on online radicalisation and social media use in P/CVE.

Recommendations

  • Where not already present, the seven African governments could each develop a bespoke national strategy for countering online radicalization, either as part of the country’s existing P/CVE strategy or as a subordinate strategy with a more in-depth focus on online radicalization.
  • After preparing a bespoke national strategy, each government should consider developing programmes, tailoring the strategy to local context and maximising its visibility by using multiple social media platforms and multiple languages.
  • Each government should consider sharing lessons on ‘what works’ in countering online radicalization at national, regional and international levels by increasing inter-governmental information exchange, creating new online communities and discussing future collaboration opportunities at annual regional conferences.

Social media in Africa presents double-edged sword for security and development, Kate Cox, William Marcellino, Jacopo Bellasio, Antonia Ward, Katerina Galai, Arya Sofia Meranto, Giacomo Persi Paoli, the RAND Corporation