“We need more digital citizens.”
Prof. Dr Caja Thimm, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
42: Prof. Thimm, what do you understand as “terrorism”?
Caja Thimm: To me, terrorism is defined as violent aggressions against state authorities, people who represent states, or state establishments. The Red Army Faction (German left extremist terrorist group active 1970-1998), the murders of Jürgen Ponto and Hans Martin Schleier – those are my own early memories. Of course, modern terrorism presents itself quite differently, it is far less person-orientated but aims to act symbolically. Today, it is more about general world views and ideologies, rather than state terrorism, as it used to be.
42: In your research, you focus heavily on online media. Terrorism has existed for a long time – social networks haven’t. How do terrorists use this new tool?
CT: Terrorists act intensively and professionally – to some extent with help from the West. There are examples of high-skilled British and German online journalists who co-operate with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. They shoot high-level videos, specifically aimed at online platforms such as YouTube. In those videos, they address and represent a utopian way of life, filled with harmony and promises, and claim to be able to provide answers for both young women and young men. They stage an idealised life, in which a close-knit community fights against a common enemy and thereby finds purpose.
42: Are there any models for this kind of propaganda? Do they have guides?
CT: Music plays an important role. Moreover, certain cultural ideals are being used: a happy life, idyllic conditions. And also the fundamental idea of a martyr’s death – in itself a Christian ideal – promising spiritual healing. These ideals are being presented visually.
42: And apart from propaganda videos?
CT: They make use of data encryption. Terrorists usually don’t use WhatsApp, but Telegram – its setup is similar, but it is more heavily encrypted. These encryptions cannot be bypassed. Especially French terrorists use Telegram intensively, like the truck driver who committed the attack in Nice. They are well positioned online.
42: Which modes of distribution are especially suitable? You have had a look at Twitter in your research – what did you find out?
CT: While Twitter is being used by terrorists to connect and spread information, it is being rather heavily monitored by now. But even so, whenever one profile gets deleted, another is set up. It’s hard to contain. Though research conducted by international colleagues shows that the interpersonal, direct communication matters most of all. The bomber of Ansbach (Germany, 24 July 2016), for example, was being directly coached via Telegram and received concrete instructions via Push notifications: “Start walking now”. So you see: dialogue is an important element. Not just the social network itself, and this chaperoning through media just keeps getting more intense. Individual terrorists are being watched every minute. Once they have decided to perform an attack and have made their preparations, the organisation makes sure they actually execute it as well.
42: How could administrators of social networks stem this spread? Twitter, as you mentioned, is only partially successful in deleting certain posts and profiles.
CT: You would need full monitoring – constant monitoring. This isn’t possible in technical, and especially in legal terms. Of course, suspects are monitored more heavily, which also requires judicial sanctions. But those are already in place. For example the surveillance of their telecommunication. We don’t need further legislation.
42: So you’re saying media companies are already doing all they can?
CT: Regarding terrorism, there is always the big question about responsibility. Those murders on camera that have been published on Facebook in the last few weeks are a terrifying example of the new mass media presentation of violence. Digital platforms definitely have room for improvement in terms of hate speech. Racism, Holocaust denial. Especially Facebook fails to fulfil any requirements, as a survey conducted by Jugendschutz.net (German state-operated website for the protection of young people online) proved.
42: Keywords such as hate speech, fake news or bots have also arisen in the context of right-wing populist movements. Could such signs of social networks also be used for terrorist purposes?
CT: Bots are very useful. They are just small programmes which copy certain patterns online. Donald Trump, for example, tends to have a certain style online: he doesn’t use operators such as hashtags, links or retweets. Bots then copy this style and produce new text based on them. This way, they can be used to influence opinions or destabilise the system. We saw this during the American Election. People are now afraid that Putin might influence the German Elections: for example through spreading fake news with inaccurate information – and I think this fear is not without reason. But this is no terrorism, of course.
42: Social networks are often seen as breeding grounds for terrorism, but earn more and more praise for making people feel more secure in the face of crisis – for example through Facebook’s Safety Check  or Twitter Accounts of local police stations. How do you evaluate the effect of social networks?
CT: I wouldn’t call social networks “breeding grounds” for terrorism. They are being used for good and bad purposes equally. The fact that terrorists need and want to connect to one another is obvious, and the logical consequence is that they use social networks. But we cannot demonise the tool itself because of that. What we need are more people online who pay attention. More digital watchdogs, more counter speech against hate speech. At the moment, we don’t have enough digital citizens – citizens who consciously and directly act against such things. But in general, we shouldn’t vilify social networks – they have to take on responsibility for finding a solution for justiciable content, but individuals also need to speak up in digital public and show opposition, rather than pretend hate and right-wing extremism online isn’t any of their concern.
42: So it’s society’s responsibility to solve this problem, not the media corporations?
CT: Of course. I do not deny that corporations have a responsibility to delete illegal content, such as death threats or terrorist threats. The fact that many corporations don’t act more systematically against these things is an outrage. But even so, it is not up to Facebook to police our political discourse.
42: We’ve talked a lot about terrorists using media so far. Let’s turn the whole thing around now: What have you noticed about the depiction of terrorism in the media?
CT: What I dislike about traditional media are the countless “terrorism experts” that step to the front. Through them, the whole thing gets framed a certain way immediately. I think this is extremely problematic, as it promotes public hysteria. Let’s take the attack on the BVB Dortmund football team’s bus as an example – it was immediately declared a terrorist attack, and not just online. Luckily, the real, though ridiculous, motives were discovered very quickly. One should never spread false information, especially through digital media, because it gets forwarded en masse and is often distorted as well. This creates fear and causes reactions like the ones we saw after the Munich shooting in 2016. We are a working state under the rule of law and have a well-equipped police force. Of course, there are areas that can be improved – but these types of catastrophes do not represent reality. Surveys show that people in Germany still feel safe. Despite Berlin, despite Ansbach, and despite Dortmund.
42: In your opinion, what is especially problematic at the moment?
CT: The “Alternative for Germany” (“Alternative für Deutschland”, right-wing populist party) encourages this hysteria: for example, by calling the victims “Merkel’s dead”. The more often the media refer back to such negative, hate filled, derogatory utterances, the more acceptable they appear to become in polite society. Just look at the example of Trump. Analyses of his content that have looked at how often these topics are under discussion prove that an agenda is being set. That is absolutely problematic. But the high-quality German media is – at least I think it is – aware of this. They remain objective and do not exaggerate. For example, after the Berlin attack, the media was very cautious about assigning blame in the beginning. They only called it a terrorist attack once it was actually confirmed to be one.
42: How should the media report about terrorism in your opinion?
CT: Objectively, well researched and not sensationalistically. As I said, I’m a sceptic of terrorism experts. The population should be included and correctly informed, but not riled up into a panic.
42: And how should the media report about terrorists? And how much time and space should be dedicated to them?
CT: The fewer media attention they get, the better. The media shouldn’t show videos of decapitations or claims of responsibility. We know they exist and that they get analysed by the police. But that should be the end of it. Allowing these people to become heroes – as has happened through the broadcasting of video decapitations – is a huge mistake. By now they’ve stopped doing that. The German media has learned a lot.
Prof. Dr Thimm, thank you very much for this interview.
Interview: Eliana Berger
Translation: Franziska Mohr
Photo: Lena Kronenbürger