By Nawridho A. Dirwan – Research & Development officer at ruangobrol.id
In the age of information, disinformation has become a sophisticated weapon in the hands of terrorist organisations. The proliferation of false or misleading information can shape public opinion, invoke emotions, and radicalise individuals.
Oxford defines disinformation as “a form of propaganda involving the dissemination of false information with the deliberate intent to deceive or mislead,” including manipulation. This information can be fake news, fabricated narratives, manipulated images, videos, etc. Terrorist groups such as ISIS have recognised the potential of disinformation to push their goals by exploiting the vulnerabilities of modern communication platforms.
The advancement of the digital age has provided terrorists with a powerful medium for disseminating disinformation. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram offer a global reach and the ability to reach a vast audience quickly. As a result, disinformation campaigns can go viral, shaping public perceptions and beliefs in hours.
The Islamic State (ISIS) has been a prominent example of a terrorist organisation that effectively used disinformation. Their use of high-quality videos, distorted narratives, and false promises contributed to their global notoriety.
In Indonesia, the marriage of disinformation campaigns and terrorist organisations enabled them to skilfully utilise social media to spread propaganda, radicalisation, recruit followers, and incite violence, creating fear and chaos.
First, terrorist organisations like ISIS use disinformation to recruit and radicalise individuals. False narratives that portray their causes as righteous and heroic can be enticing to vulnerable individuals, often leading to self-radicalisation. These groups can sow the seeds of extremism in susceptible minds by manipulating information.
Many of ISIS videos that show the utopia of living under the ISIS regime on social media have incited the desire for thousands of Indonesians to travel to Syria. Little to know that all of the images depicted in the propaganda videos are lies and part of their disinformation campaign; there are injustices in the regime, unequal treatment against women and harsh treatment to those who did not want to join as soldiers.
Thanks to some Indonesians who managed to escape from that area and return home, like the family of Djoko Wiwoho, whose daughters actively enlighten the Indonesian public about the lies of ISIS narratives. In addition, another young man named Febri Ramdani, who documented his travel journey in a book titled “300 Days in the Land of Syam”, also reveals the complex situation and harsh conditions living under the regime, which is not included in the ISIS disinformation propaganda videos.
Second, disinformation plays a role in inciting violence and promoting terrorist acts. By spreading hate speech and extremist ideologies, terrorist organisations can influence individuals to carry out attacks. For example, labelling the Indonesian government as an infidel and non-Islamic, including all institutions that support it, such as the police department.
This false interpretation of information led to various attacks on police stations in Indonesia. Those who died while carrying out the attack is labelled as a martyr by the terrorist group, inciting more desire to conduct similar act. The ISIS disinformation propaganda did not explicitly disclose that many of those policemen and policewomen who become a victim of their attack are Muslim as well. This shows that misleading information can serve as a catalyst for acts of terror, as it legitimises violence as a means of achieving their goals.
Third, disinformation campaigns aim to create social fear and chaos, specifically targeting emotions rather than logic. In 2021, research by CREST found that disinformation usually used misleading techniques, including hasty generalisations, polarisation and invoking emotion. False claims of imminent threats or attacks can lead to panic, disrupt social order, and divert security resources.
Nevertheless, from late 2019 until 2023, the Indonesia Ministry of Communication and Information Technology has debunked 11,357 disinformation issues. A few of them are terrorist-related disinformation mixed with other issues such as security, politics, health and more. For example, the terrorist threats in Probolinggo in 2019, the issue of former vice-president Jusuf Kalla claiming to fund terrorist organisations and information about the bombing act in People’s Representative Council (DPR) building facilities in 2023.
At the end of October 2023, the Indonesian National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT), working together with Hedayah and The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), organised capacity-building training in response to the dynamic of terrorism activity online in the region. The relevant stakeholders, including the government, private, academic and civil society organisation (CSO) representatives from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand, attended the training.
In combating disinformation and terrorist influence online, the discussion agreed on the need for public awareness about disinformation and other fake news. The relevant stakeholders require Media and information literacy (MIL) to create counter-narratives and alternative narratives, empower the public to critically assess the information they encounter, and differentiate between credible sources and disinformation. Stronger regulation is also crucial to tech companies; close cooperation with law enforcement agencies and transnational cooperation can help limit the reach of terrorist propaganda.
Anglo-Irish essayist Johnathan Swift said, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it”. It is not an easy path to combating the disinformation campaign, as the lies and false information spread like wildfire; a multifaceted approach like a public awareness campaign and national and transnational cooperation, including with the tech companies, is essential to mitigate the influence of disinformation on terrorism and safeguard our societies from the threats it poses.