The online frontline: Inside Boko Haram’s social media and a movement to push back

By Jillian Slutzker

October 10, 2018

On any given day, Boko Haram and Islamic State-West Africa (ISIS-WA) dispatch hundreds of messages online to their followers, enemies and would-be recruits. What are they talking about, and how are people, both sympathizers and opponents alike, responding? As extremist content evolves can peacebuilders keep up?

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives wanted to answer those questions and more to be able to better support local efforts to build resilience to violent extremism.

To achieve this, the Office of Transition Initiatives’ Nigeria Regional Transition Initiative program (NRTI) commissioned an in-depth content analysis of 13,663 posts in Arabic, French, Hausa and English from public Boko Haram-affiliated accounts and millions of public posts about the group. The analysis was carried out by Creative Development Lab experts on social media and countering violent extremism, Violet Tsagka and Giselle Lopez.

Through social media, these groups can directly connect with their audiences. They produce and share videos and dispatch regular updates of their daily live. This constant broadcast and exchange helps them to build relationships with their followers and other affiliates.

A bright spot in the online battle against extremism, the study also catalogues how the online and offline efforts of dedicated, digitally savvy Nigerian activists, trained through the Nigeria Regional Transition Initiative, are building momentum, raising awareness and offering a viable counter-message to that of the extremists.

Read on to learn more about the study’s findings and see how online activists are peacefully pushing back and building resilience.

What’s the value of studying the social media use of a violent extremist organization (VEO) like Boko Haram or ISIS-WA?

“Studying [social media] can tell you a great deal about the group’s mentality and strategies—not only communication strategies but also the group’s approach for reaching out to different populations and branding itself.”

Giselle Lopez, Technical Manager, Creative Development Lab

Giselle Lopez: Part of the value in studying these groups’ use of social media is understanding the ways in which a violent extremist organization chooses to communicate with and define its audience, how it uses different language and channels, and how that changes over time.

I think studying this can tell you a great deal about the group’s mentality and strategies—not only communication strategies but also the group’s approach for reaching out to different populations and branding itself.

On the flip side, studying how people talk about that violent extremist organization can help us to better understand whether and how the group’s messaging and activities resonate among the broader population.

Violet Tsagka: To design effective counter messaging campaigns, we need to understand how a violent extremist organization uses social media. And while it is true that online recruitment is still relatively small compared to offline recruitment, it is still a big part of how VEOs engage with individuals and generally choose to share information to attract some attention.

For example, starting in 2013, social media increasingly played a role in Boko Haram’s messaging. They actively posted communications through Facebook due to the platform’s wide coverage among the population in Northern Nigeria, using it to then drive communications to other social media platforms such as Telegram, a securely encrypted messaging application. Using Facebook freed Boko Haram from their dependency on mainstream media, and it also brought the group closer to its target audience.

What are the top findings from the report?

Tsagka: The study analyzes the evolution of Boko Haram and, after Boko Haram, the ISIS-WA. Boko Haram has been using media since 2009, starting with a very traditional media approach through propaganda films, many of them aimed at recruiting new fighters from Nigeria and neighboring countries including Niger, Chad and Cameroon. In addition, the group’s spokespeople were reaching out to local and international media to share information on its activities. Abul Qaqa became the group’s primary spokesperson in September 2011 and, subsequently, briefed the press on at least 53 occasions, soon becoming one of the most frequently quoted public figures in Boko Haram’s history.

From 2014 onward, their strategy changes into more use of social media platforms, more use of videos, creating multiple accounts. Even after those account have been taken down on Twitter, they begin creating more and more accounts. In Northeast Nigeria, they use Facebook mostly as a way to communicate with individuals.

What we’ve seen lately is that they’ll use the public social media channels to post a general text or a video and then they take the conversations to the private channels, like Telegram. So that’s a way for them to overcome the issues we’re having with privacy and Facebook or Twitter taking down their content.

What types of messaging are these groups putting out?

Tsagka: Since the beginning, we have seen messaging against democracy and [so-called Western-style] education from both factions, Boko Haram and ISIS-WA. We see a lot of mentions of their daily life, and for them, that’s a way to show that, yes, we’re living in camps all together, our kids are together, we exercise together. They want to show their daily life and routine as a way to attract more individuals to join them. Another big part of their messaging is around Islamic legitimacy and how they use phrases from the Quran to elevate Islam.

What are people saying about Boko Haram and ISIS-WA?

Lopez: One of the main narratives the study identified on the discussion about VEOs that were prominent across languages was global solidarity and advocacy, which was driven by the discussion of the Chibok girls, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. While this campaign is well known for gathering international attention, it has continued to garner attention and raise awareness about the ongoing struggle against Boko Haram, including the more recent kidnapping of schoolgirls in Dapchi.

Another major theme in conversation was about the responsibility of the military to fight. In part there was praise of the military and encouragement for them. There’s also a flip side of criticism, pointing to weakness in the military, reluctance of the government to act and contradictions between strong words and action, and abuses by the military. Other threads of discussion focus on comparison of regional military responses in the fight against these groups.

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Violet Tsagka consults with a fellow of the Nigeria Regional Transition Initiative at a social media training.

What do these findings indicate for counter-messaging efforts to reduce these groups’ online influence?

Tsagka: The biggest finding is that a lot of messaging campaigns fall short. They are created in a vacuum and they don’t connect to real activities. Where many of these VEOs have been successful is that they connect their messaging with real calls to action and activity happening on the ground.

We need to be able to do what the Nigeria Regional Transition Initiative does –have on-the-ground activities and defined solutions, have strong specific messaging with calls to action and ways for people to be involved. That is not just a retweet or share, this is what we’re doing on the ground in Nigeria, this has been helping the people we work with. Otherwise, you create passive, nice campaigns that don’t say anything.

What is happening on the ground and online through NRTI to counter the violent extremists’ influence?

Tsagka: The project has 90 youth fellows who are primarily from the North East but also from other parts of the country. They are part of the project’s North East Intellectual Entrepreneurship Fellowship and the North East Social Innovation Fellowship. They gather to build their capacity to counter violent extremists’ use of social media, create counter-messaging campaigns and build capacity to talk about issues like social cohesion, economic markets, gender inclusion, the Nigerian legal system and more.

The goal is to take that knowledge to their communities and help their communities do better. As an example, one of the NRTI fellows is helping his community get electricity. His fellowship helped him to advocate for his community and at the same time be a social media activist.

The online component is a way for the fellows to speak and connect with the rest of the country and with the world. It’s a way for them to become citizen journalists and be the ones telling the story of the North East to everyone else. There’s been a lot of misinformation or many times there have been attacks that nobody reports, so they want to have the power to talk about those attacks. They also want the power to talk about the good things happening in Northeast, because the Northeast is not all about attacks and bombs. The region also has a lot of good examples, good stories.

Nigeria’s digital peacemaker: Maiduguri-based activist counters Boko Haram’s influence from Creative on Vimeo.

What is the origin of #NotAnotherNigerian?

Tsagka: The fellows decided on the hashtag #NotAnotherNigerian.  That hashtag was chosen because we’re trying to talk about a problem in the North East part of the country but bringing the rest of the country’s attention to it, to make them understand that we are all Nigerians. #NotAnotherNigerian should suffer from violent extremism, #NotAnotherNigerian should be denied the opportunities to fight for his/her ideas and a better future.

It’s not about being Muslim or Christian—it’s about being Nigerian. That’s something that fellows who are both Christians and Muslims came up together because they want to highlight the national identity.

What are the risks of engaging in online counter-messaging and how did the project advise fellows to try to mitigate those risks?

Tsagka: We take that very seriously. Every time the project or Creative engages with anybody, any beneficiary that will have any online or offline engagement with the program, trainers explain to them the risks and what we’re trying to do.

When it comes to the online space, in every social media training, participants take a special session on security measures and digital security. This covers how they can report it if somebody tries to hack their Facebook or Twitter accounts and how they can use Facebook to report any online attack or hate speech.

At the same time, the fellows know that if they are going to be a social media activist, they have to be out there, so they have to make some hard decisions that could put them in danger. The fellows are very aware of these risks but they’re willing to take them because they understand the good they provide.

Lopez: Even in the report, we see it as important to protect the security of individuals by blocking out their usernames, names and pictures. It’s a simple way to keep people anonymous, even if it is the violent extremist groups, or a supporter of a violent extremist group.

What have been the most surprising outcomes or biggest gains of the #NotAnotherNigerian campaign?

Tsagka: I think the most exciting thing is how much the #NotAnotherNigerian campaign has grown and become well-known across Nigeria and globally, which is a testament to the hard work of the fellows and the capacity building they received through NRTI.

The second thing is that even though the fellowships have ended, the fellows continue engaging online, continue being part of the campaign, and continue sharing what they’re doing in their communities. That shows they’ve taken those skills and now they can apply them.

How does this analysis and the fellows program that followed contribute to the larger goal of the building resilience?

Tsagka: The research and fellowships contributed significantly to amplifying the voices of Nigerians and building resilience through NRTI. The research helped inform the fellows’ development and targeted distribution of messages in a way that would resonate with existing narratives. The fellows’ online and offline engagement helped to elevate discussion of “the Northeast problem” to a broader audience across Nigeria and globally.

Since the research was conducted, the fellows’ activities in social media have expanded with increased use of tailored messages and targeting of diverse groups of people to counter violent extremist narratives. Because the fellowships and messaging campaigns were developed and driven by Nigerians themselves, they were able to achieve success in advancing and sustaining these efforts and supporting the success of the program overall.

 

Violet Tsagka is the Media Lead for the Creative Development Lab.

Giselle Lopez is a Technical Manager specializing in technology for peacebuilding and security for the Creative Development Lab.

 

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