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For now, forums still make up the core of Al Qaeda’s online presence because they can facilitate private conversations and are seen as authentic. (Social media sites and tweets are far easier to fake.) But social media have a growing role.
"Currently, the forums are the hubs where the al-Qaeda organization meets its grass-roots supporters in a relatively safe and exclusive environment," the study notes. "The social media platforms are where the product or ideas are sold."
What is unclear is whether Facebook would be more successful in selling the terrorist message than a forum. Statistics show that the English-language versions of jihadi websites are failing to spread the message to English-speaking Muslims in North America and Britain, the study says.
If social media prove to be more effective, governments will face big problems.
"It's very difficult for law enforcement or intelligence agencies to police the entire social media landscape – they just don't have the bandwidth," says John Bumgarner, research director for the US Cyber Consequences Unit, a cybersecurity think tank. "Twitter could kick someone off for violating their terms of service, but nothing prevents those guys from coming back and creating an account under another Twitter handle."
In January, Twitter shut down @HSMPress (which was linked with Al Shabab, whose full name is Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin) when it tweeted to its then-20,000 followers that it would kill French hostage Denis Allex. It followed with a tweet saying it had done just that. After the shutdown, though, @HSMPRESS1 popped up to fill its spot – its originator also apparently a resident of Somalia.
"For what it's worth, shooting the messenger and suppressing the truth by silencing your opponents isn't quite the way to win the war of ideas," chided one of the first tweets from the new account.