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The Role of Video Games and Online Platforms in Terrorist Radicalization and Recruitment

Updated: Jun 22

Katelyn Ferguson, Moon Jung Kim, Martyna Dobrowolska, Crime Team

Week of Monday, March 15, 2021


ISIS uses ‘GTA 5’ in a new teen recruitment video.[1]


Terrorists have been exploiting popular violent video games and several widely used media platforms to radicalize and recruit new members. By modeling their recruitment videos on games such as GTA 5 and Call of Duty, terrorist groups and organizations have been able to spread large-scale propaganda and increase their publicity through quick and effective means. This phenomenon has become a global threat in recent years as terrorists have been able to reach larger audiences through such methods, which may have contributed to an observed increase in far-right political terrorism worldwide and a significant growth in IS attacks in Syria and Iraq.[2] Additionally, due to this trend, many terrorist groups have allocated much of their resources and their capabilities to the online world, which has made it even more challenging for law enforcement to track and intervene with terrorist activity. CTG thus recommends for security professionals to stay up-to-date on cybersecurity materials and for government officials to consider the effects of violent video games on consumers when drafting public policy—with such counterterrorism measures, terrorists may be more easily apprehended despite their familiarity with modern technology.


The Internet has opened new opportunities for terrorists to operate, spread their messages, motivate and train their followers, fundraise, and also facilitate the planning of their attacks.[3] The most important aspect that they rely upon is interactivity.[4] The breadth and the intricacy of the Internet have eliminated borders caused by location distance, allowing people to instantly connect with each other around the world. Although this development has stimulated social and economic growth, many media and social platforms—like Facebook—also profit from content that arouses great emotions, such as images depicting violence. Sensitive information psychologically activates divergent emotions in people, which functions to create global discussions and greater engagement on social media. This increases the views of a post and the comments below it, thus making the social platform involved more powerful and popular, and this platform will oftentimes continue to boost or neglect to take down the content for their economic gain. Regardless of the attention, it tends to draw in, what should be happening instead is the total and immediate ban of violent and disturbing content. As regulators of their posted content, social platforms should create large teams or departments that are dedicated to identifying harmful posts quickly and efficiently. However, it must be noted that in a larger scope, censorship in a democracy is difficult because it has historically been seen to undermine civil liberties and free speech.[5] This is a concerning dilemma that states must address first through legal changes before allowing the counterterrorism community to tackle online terrorism and extremism.


In addition to the expansive, difficult-to-regulate nature of the modern Internet, the proliferation of the COVID-19 pandemic has induced many people to spend more time on the Internet from home, which has increased their risk of exposure to extremist content, radicalization, and being involved in violence.[6] As COVID-19 has been persisting for over a year, extensive national lockdown regulations have exacerbated feelings of uncertainty and isolation in some individuals. This has granted terrorists a large pool of vulnerable targets susceptible to their methods of radicalization.[7] In particular, people have recently been seeking entertainment sites and video games as a way to partake in a virtual world where they are able to interact with people from all over the world and belong to a virtual community. The increased popularity of gaming and its ability to reach a large and diverse audience has therefore served to attract extremist organizations looking to expand their numbers or initiate acts of violence without having physical ties to criminal activity.[8]


One such platform, Twitch, is an international online video game streaming service where individuals are allowed to live stream audio and video of them playing video games. Although meant to share gaming experiences with others, some individuals utilized Twitch to spread their polarizing and violent political beliefs about controversial issues. In one instance, Kenneth ‘Destiny’ Bonnel lost his partnership with Twitch as a result of him indirectly encouraging violence against the Black Lives Matter protestors.[9] He personally said that he wouldn’t mind shooting the protestors himself and that "white redneck militia dudes mowing down dips**t protesters” had his “f**king blessing.”[10] In spite of Bonnel losing his partnership with Twitch, the site failed to suspend his account—meaning that he can continue to post and stream any content—violent or not—in the future. Despite Twitch attempting to condemn Bonnel’s utilization of their platform for violence, it is evident that they are still open to future violations of their community guidelines in allowing Bonnel and others like him to keep producing content. In this scenario, Bonnel may not directly be tied to a terrorist organization, but his example serves as one where an individual has utilized video game streaming platforms in order to promote violence.


Furthermore, first-person shooter video games have been and are currently being investigated for their potential influence in the desensitization of individuals to violence, and in general the promotion of violence. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the United States conducted a study in which they discovered that terrorist groups have been found to alter their recruitment strategies to reflect violent video games in order to make joining their groups more appealing to potential recruits. The researchers involved found that Islamic State professional-grade propaganda and recruitment videos copy popular computer games, most notably Call of Duty. “‘First Person Shooter’ (FPS) games like these are played by hundreds of millions of people, generally under age 35 and 90 percent male, which is a key target demographic for Islamic terrorist organizations. It was discovered that ISIS videos often mimic or lift footage and imitate editing styles, common features, and sequences in detailed ways that only regular gamers may fully recognize. This includes things like “how the weapon the shooter is holding appears in the shot, the progression from lighter to heavier weapons, the use of drone footage clips, and the way graphics and titles are used.”[11] The researchers did not conclude that video games were directly linked to the radicalization of players, but rather that terrorist groups such as ISIS have tailored their recruitment strategies to be similar to those in Call of Duty and FPS games by showing first-person shooter media in their recruitment videos.[12] It is important to note that video game manufacturers do not promote the utilization of violence, however, terrorist organizations such as ISIS have become aware of the popularity of first-person shooter games, and thus determined that by using FPS game techniques, they could reach a larger audience when trying to recruit new members.


It is important to note that ISIS is also known for encouraging violence to young children using several methods of technology-related entertainment. Specifically, Huroof is an educational app that asks children to match Arabic letters to pictures of bombs, weapons, tanks and many other military symbols.[13] Children are generally extremely naive and vulnerable but also quick to learn new material, and ISIS’s method of targeting this demographic through entertainment will most likely create a new generation of strong-willed fighters faithful to ISIS’s cause, without any regard to moral values or the destruction that violence creates. This prediction needs to be addressed at the international level, and measures must be taken to ensure that these children receive the education they require as opposed to tactics of desensitization by an extremist organization.


Larger terrorist groups like ISIS are not the only actors to increase their focus on video games and other online platforms. Smaller, less sophisticated terrorist organizations have been inspired by ISIS’s recruitment strategies and have begun utilizing these techniques as well. The research team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also evaluated the elements within these FPS inspired recruitment techniques and compared them based upon their production values. The study found that the previously discussed video game strategy “was expanded to cover about 50 points of assessment ranging from technical production values to storyline, camera technique, editing craft, and so on.” With this grading scale, the researchers concluded that the typical ISIS video was produced at a similar level to a professionally produced corporate video.[14] The utilization of these types of techniques for recruitment makes it evident that terrorist organizations are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. They are adapting their recruitment strategies to the interests of their target demographic so that they can tailor their recruitment campaigns to be appealing to them. Terrorist organizations are willing to learn, practice, and utilize various skills that individuals external to their group may not perceive to be a threat. It is also important to consider that with the increased popularity of such tactics, terrorist organizations could be competing amongst one another to improve their recruitment strategies and reach a greater number of potential recruits. Their efforts to further familiarize themselves with potential recruits and to attract as many followers as possible signifies that the threat of online terrorism will continue to expoentially increase and to adapt to the popular preferences observed in this modern day and age.


While it may be perceived that the utilization of these recruitment techniques by terrorist organizations is negative, the increased prevalence of recruitment techniques by video games can help law enforcement identify terrorist organizations. They had stated that “studying propaganda videos can help track the spread of sophisticated production values and [help] develop detailed ‘aesthetic fingerprints’ that could be used to identify teams and organizations producing such material.”[15] By studying the videos produced by extremist organizations, law enforcement and government officials can work together to publicly condemn these practices and to warn individuals on the domestic and international level to practice hypervigilance when engaging with unknown individuals on online platforms. Exposing these sophisticated techniques via the news, printed sources, and word of mouth can also help individuals to understand what methods terrorists are relying upon today so that they can identify terrorist activity and report it if they come across it. Agencies, Organizations and Companies (AOCs) must also increase funding for cybersecurity divisions or personnel in order to improve existing cybersecurity measures designed to scan the Internet for language or images related to extremism. It is paramount that they also collaborate with Big Tech personnel to ensure that such large companies are involved in this process, which may hold both accountable in adhering to their efforts to protect the public from such methods.


It is possible to notice a turning point in the fight against online radicalization, which sees many group-chat apps banning extremist and violent communities from their platforms. For example, Discord - a popular group-chatting app originally created for gamers - removed (and keeps removing), groups that are organized around violence and extremist ideologies.[16] This is important because it shows that social platforms have the power and the ultimate control over everything that happens within them. Identifying violent content is a complex process, but it is possible. Banning all communities that incite and promote violence could serve to send a warning message to all those who intend to create their own extremist group.


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to monitor and analyze violent content posted on both large and smaller online platforms and will continue to produce reports intended to identify key actors and new techniques to be read by AOCs. CTG’s Crime Team will stay up to date on the most recent developments in privacy laws for violent video games and will ensure that the necessary analysis-oriented connections are being drawn to ensure that extremist organizations are not taking advantage of possible loopholes or violating public policy. The Crime Team will additionally prioritize gathering intelligence indicative of terrorist radicalization processes from widely used media platforms such as Twitch, which currently reports around 140 million unique visitors every month.[17] Although COVID-19 lockdown regulations have been easing up around the world due to the presence of a vaccine, many media platforms are expected to continue to expand in users due to a pre-established modern culture of global internet engagement. Becoming familiar with these growing media platforms will be crucial towards detecting subtle or apparent efforts to radicalize people and consequently preventing the expansion of terrorist bases.


CTG recommends for popular streaming sites and law enforcement to upgrade current cybersecurity systems to deter terrorists from utilizing their platforms for radicalization and recruitment purposes. CTG also recommends for both to establish large teams of personnel dedicated towards removing content indicative of extremism as quickly as possible. Although many online platforms provide options to their users to flag inappropriate content, it is paramount that trained teams are actively removing them to further reduce the risk of a spike in terrorist activity. Regarding video games, CTG recommends for lawmakers to deeply analyze the research that has been published so far on the implications of violence on consumers prior to drafting public policy. It is highly likely that a legislative reaction to violence in video games may induce public outrage, especially to those who view that doing so demonstrates a violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, but extending or strengthening laws restricting minors’ access to violent video games may contribute to a decline in terrorist organizations and activity. CTG recommends for lawmakers to consider such potential consequences when attempting to regulate or censor new forms of media.

__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Halflife ingame” by Littleendian licensed under Creative Commons

[2] “Middle East – The resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq”, Global Risk Insights, February 2021, https://globalriskinsights.com/2021/02/middle-east-the-resurgence-of-the-islamic-state-in-syria-and-iraq/

[3] Young, E. “Terrorism, Media, and the Rise of the Internet” in Wither, J.K. and Mullins, S. “Combating Transnational Terrorism,” Procon, 2016

[4] Online-Radicalisation: Myth or Reality?, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, September 2018, https://www.kas.de/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=baca4877-ac6c-4df4-ae77-28b4ba2aafac&groupId=252038

[5] Young, E. “Terrorism, Media, and the Rise of the Internet” in Wither, J.K. and Mullins, S. “Combating Transnational Terrorism,” Procon, 2016

[6] COVID-19 and Terrorism in the West: Has Radicalization Really Gone Viral?, Just Security, March 2021, https://www.justsecurity.org/75064/covid-19-and-terrorism-in-the-west-has-radicalization-really-gone-viral/

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Jumanji Extremism? How games and gamification could facilitate radicalization processes,” Journal for Deradicalization, 2020, https://journals.sfu.ca/jd/index.php/jd/article/view/359/223

[9] Twitch streamer Destiny loses partnership for "encouraging violence", Ginx, September 2020, https://www.ginx.tv/en/twitch/twitch-streamer-destiny-loses-partnership-for-encouraging-violance-against-protesters

[10] Ibid.

[11] How ‘Call of Duty’ Is Transformed Into a Call for Jihad, Homeland Security Today, August 2019, https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/how-call-of-duty-is-transformed-into-a-call-for-jihad/

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Jumanji Extremism? How games and gamification could facilitate radicalization processes,” Journal for Deradicalization, 2020, https://journals.sfu.ca/jd/index.php/jd/article/view/359/223

[14] How ‘Call of Duty’ Is Transformed Into a Call for Jihad, Homeland Security Today, August 2019, https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/how-call-of-duty-is-transformed-into-a-call-for-jihad/

[15] How ‘Call of Duty’ Is Transformed Into a Call for Jihad, Homeland Security Today, August 2019, https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/how-call-of-duty-is-transformed-into-a-call-for-jihad/

[16] “Group-Chat App Discord Says It Banned More Than 2,000 Extremist Communities”, NPR, April 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/04/05/983855753/group-chat-app-discord-says-it-banned-more-than-2-000-extremist-communities?t=1617718575660

[17] “Twitch Usage and Growth Statistics: How Many People Use Twitch in 2021?”, BackLinko, January 2021, https://backlinko.com/twitch-users



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