The perception of terrorism through social media and other media sources

a quantitative analysis
Social media
Social media


Terrorism has become a concerning matter at all levels. Home-grown terrorist and international terrorist organizations are using different media platforms to spread their propaganda globally, with a special focus on social media. Adopting effective communication strategies and related tools to recruit, train, communicate, command and control their community, the phenomenon has become faster, easier, cheaper and difficult to discover by governmental and security entities.

Social media platforms and other media sources offer a broader engagement with the different audiences to promote terrorist principles and activities. Conducting a quantitative analysis, this paper reports the results of a survey that emphasizes on three main areas: knowledge of terrorism by the target audience; dissemination of it by social media platforms and other media sources; and its engagement at the different levels. The objective of the research is to show the connection between the mediatization of terrorism and its reaction in influencing the public audience.

Furthermore, it highlights on how a similar phenomenon could change the perception of a culture between people of different nationality, religion, traditions and background, and in this specific the Western versus the Islamic world.


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Methodology and discussion

3. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The threat of violent extremism is a global matter. Extremist groups perform ongoing communication campaigns, aiming to radicalize receptive people in the name of a violent ideology to make them perform violent acts. Terrorist groups are using advanced messaging strategies to support their branding of violent extremist ideologies. Terrorism is a combination of violence and propaganda that uses public violence as a tool in order to advertise, to cause damage and to destroy [1].


Relation between Media and Terrorism

The former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, during a speech in November 2007 stated It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaeda is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America. As one foreign diplomat asked a couple of years agoHow has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communications society?Speed, agility, and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing US strategic communications.

For a terrorist organizations media are essential because they provide the needed tools to attract attention and spread the word. Taking into account the communication strategies’ prospective, the media were seen as the ally of the terrorists because they help them in their promotion. Citizens are the target market of various mass media and as such they are overwhelmed by entertainment oriented in order to maximize profits …” [2]. It is also known that terrorists provide to media emotional, violent and exciting news for selling their product.

Being this a win-win relationship there are benefits for both parties. In fact, it helps terrorists to sell the product to the news and media to provide terrorist groups with a wider promotion of their ideas that dissipate fear through the audiences. Furthermore, there is a strong connection … between the prominence of an issue in media coverage and the importance attached to it by the general public. Most of the general public gain their knowledge about current affairs and issues in the wider world from the media [3]. The main objective and aim of terrorist groups is not the act of violence but to disseminate fear and uncertainty within the audiences while spreading the group’s message. Schimd [4] considers the media to be the “accomplices” of terrorists and Hoffman [5] describes it as their best friend. Wilkinson [6] speaks about oxygen of publicity” from broadcasting channels to terrorist groups.

On the same note, Bruce Hoffman [5] points out that The modern news media, as the principal conduit of information about such acts, thus play a vital part in the terroristscalculus. Indeed, without the media’s coverage the act’s impact is arguably wasted, remaining narrowly confined to the immediate victims of the attack rather than reaching the wider target audienceat whom the terrorists’ violence is actually aimed. Only by spreading the terror and outrage to a much larger audience can the terrorists gain the maximum potential leverage that they need to effect fundamental political change.

Wilkinson [6] recognizes the importance of mass media for terrorist groups but on the other hand he points out a fact that it cannot be omitted: It is widely recognized that it is important to avoid the mass media being hijacked and manipulated by terrorists, but if the freedom of the media is sacrificed in the name of combatting terrorism one has allowed small groups of terrorists to destroy one of the key foundations of a democratic society. It is also an insult to the intelligence of the general public, and would totally undermine confidence in the veracity of the media if censorship was to be introduced.


Communications Strategies

Recently, analysts and scientists focused on communication strategies of terrorist organizations all over the world for their ability to recruit Muslim audiences from Western States. Terrorist groups efficiently improved their communication skills, advancing the use and knowledge of social media providing a broad variety of content dissemination on an increasingly global audience [7].

To this extent … Daesh has demonstrated a high degree of familiarity in dealing with modern communication technology, exploiting the internet and social media with an unparallel marketing capability[8]. Its content and the marketing strategies applied have the same high-quality standard as the ones produced in the Western world. Daesh (or IS) showed that it has strong knowledge of branding and marketing and has professional media-makers that are able to use the latest technologies [9].

Terrorist organizations are capable of mastering branding strategies, storytelling techniques, and social media methods to effectively achieve their public diplomacy goals, especially the recruitment of foreign publics …” [10].

According to Leuprecht et al., [11] a prominent storytelling designates the target market as all Muslims, even those who are not in favour of the violent approach. Islamist groups have published printed-material where they represent themselves as authentic Muslims [12] grouped in unified communities by using substantial emotional content [13].

Berger [14] and Corman and Schiefelbein [15] highlight defamation defining it as a leverage; it is used to create confusion between enemies, at the local level as in the Western society, therefore defamation itself could be seen as an intimidation towards the group of enemies. Zhou et al., [16] argue that defamation is used by terrorist groups in order to encourage violence and increase the willingness to perpetrate an attack. Jihad and Girl Power: How IS Lured 3 London Girls” [17] and similar stories with bold headlines have become usual in the newspapers.

The Western intelligence is concerned about the extraordinary command of seemingly less lethal weapons: cutting-edge videos, videos shot from drones and multilingual Twitter messages …” [18] of terrorist organizations. Gartensteing-Ross [19] argues that the crucial point of the success of Daesh is its … production of tightly choreographed and slickly produced videos …” and … its apparently deep understanding of how to catch the Western medias attention, and its exceptionally skilled coordinated distribution of its content on platforms like Twitter”.

Daesh is winning its propaganda war against the United States and other Western powers. Stern and Berger [20] define … innovative propaganda and unprecedented manipulation of social media, and its recruitment of foreign fighters ; and Daesh’s videos ensure … that the foreign fighters are clearly visible and sparking a rush by the media to identify them. While terrorist groups have been operating in secret online forums in the past, terrorist organizations have now distributed their ideology across a multitude of Twitter and Facebook accounts, publicly available in different languages [9].

Stern and Berger [20] note … the birth of a media model that has been transformed, expanded, and refined to a science. IS has made its name on the marketing of savagery, evolving its message to sell a strange but potent new blend of utopianism and appalling carnage to a worldwide audience. IS is using beheadings as a form of marketing, manipulation, and recruitment, determined to bring the public display of savagery into our lives, trying to install in us a state of terror.” The model seemed to function accurately, according to the fact that it resulted in a unique major recruitment of Western people by terrorist organizations while IS’s fame attained huge proportions on a worldwide scale. Terrorist organizations’ power also derives from their successful propaganda, branding and differentiating their storytelling.

Branding involves content with emotional components with the objective of making the audience to worship it [21]. The concept of a brand, which engage constantly with its messages the consumer’s mind, has been developed also for states with the purpose to engage emotionally the worldwide public [22]. State-branding strategies has been used by different entities, as well as extremist organizations [23].


2. Methodology and discussion

This research has not the objective to claim that social media and other media sources make individuals to worship terrorist organizations, however, it stresses on the fact that the resources offered by the media play a significant role in the process [24], [25]. In order to show the connection between the mediatization of terrorism and its reaction in influencing the audiences the approach taken for this research is of a quantitative analysis supported by a survey designed to measure the perception of terrorism through social media and other media sources. The dedicated survey was conducted from June to July 2018. A total of 288 interviews were conducted with Italian representatives from all the twenty regions of the country of a +18 age. All the respondents are employees from the national security sector. Generalizability of findings to other working fields cannot be assumed. More male than females participated to the study, having a total of 262 males (91%) and 26 females (9%). Respondents’ age is divided in two groups: Group

1 – respondents of age between 18-34 years old; Group 2 – respondents of age between 35-54 years old. The 84% of respondents belong to Group 1 with 243 samples versus 16% of Group 2 with 45 samples. Respondents also reported a high-level of education. In the sample, 100% of the respondents have at least a high school degree, divided between 73% (210) who received a high school diploma and 27% (78) who received a degree from university.

Another important variable in order to place correctly the audience is the knowledge of the topic, in this case resulted basic about terrorism organizations. This parameter was measured by 4 questions: Who are foreign fighters?; Write the names of terrorist organizations that you are aware of; What is the name of the organization founded by Osama Bin Laden?; What is the name of the organization founded by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi?.

The evaluation methodology of the research to measure answers is based on a Yes or No value according to the correctness of the response. The total amount of each of the four items is summed to calculate the mean showing as a result that the target audience has a high knowledge of the topic, with 75% of right answers.



For this paper twelve variables are used. Four of it are used to analyse the mediatization of terrorist information through different sources: exposure of terrorist information from social media; exposure of terrorist information from the web; exposure of terrorist information from the television; and exposure of terrorist information from newspapers/magazines. Exposure of terrorist Information from social media – it is measured by the question How often do you receive information about terrorism on social media?.

A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean =6.07 and a SD=2.38. Exposure of terrorist information from the web – it is measured by the question How often do you receive information about terrorism on web channels?. A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean =6.76 and SD=1.97. Exposure of terrorist information from the television – it is measured by the question How often do you receive information about terrorism on television?.

A range of 1 to 10 is offered to the respondents resulting a mean =6.80 and a SD=2.02. Exposure of terrorist information from newspaper/magazines – it is measured by the question How often do you receive information about terrorism on newspaper/magazines?. A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean =6.23 and a SD=2.19.

Moreover, because of the strong focus on social media one of the aims of this research is to measure from which social media platform the respondents receive more likely this kind of information between Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, measuring it with a range from 1 to 10. The results show that Facebook is the most used platform whereas the other two platforms, have a low engagement rate on the topic. Table 1 shows the results.

Tabella 1

According to the results our sample is exposed to the related information via all the media channels. The higher value is the reception from the television followed by the web, newspapers/magazines and surprisingly the lowest source is social media, although the difference between one channel and the other is less than 1 point (6.07 of social media vs 6.80 of television).

Another set of four variables are related to the media behaviour in managing terrorist information: Western media provocation; media attention; media alteration; and media frighten.

Western media provocation – it is measured by the question Is the Western media causing the reaction of the Islamic World?. A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean =3.72 and a SD=2.25. Media attention – it is measured by the question How mucimportance give media to terrorist actions?.

A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean =7.79 and SD=2.18. Media alteration – it is measured by the question How the media alter the information to reach a wider audience?. A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean =6.34 and a SD=1.95. Media frighten – it is measured by the question How much does media frighten citizens when they talk about terrorist actions?.

A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean =7.58 and a SD=2.07. The results shows that the sample rejects the idea about the Western media provoking the Islamic world with their behaviour (mean =3.72) however, at the same time it strongly agrees that media give too much attention at the phenomenon (mean =7.79); media alters information for commercial reasons; and that media scares people when they manage information related to terroristic events (mean =7.58).

Other four variables are used in the analysis related to the influence of the mediatization of terrorism on the sample: fear for terrorism news; fear for terrorist attack; change of habits; and change of impression.

Fear for terrorism news – it is measured by the question How much do this news frighten you?. A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean =4.63 and a SD=2.39.

Fear for terrorist attack – it is measured by the question Do you think you can be victim of a terrorist attack?. A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean =4.28 and SD =2.38. Change of habits – it is measured by the question Has the fear of being victim of a terrorist attack changed your habits?. A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean = 2.37 and a SD=2.19. Change of impressions – it is measured by the question Has your vision changed towards Islamic people?.

A range of 1 through 10 is offered to respondents resulting a mean =4.22 and a SD=2.66. Basically, the sample is not concerned neither by terrorism news nor by the possibility to be victim of a terroristic attack. At the same time, it strongly rejects the possibility to have changed habits in the normal daily routine or impression over the Islamic world.

Table 2 shows the coefficient of correlation between the four variables related to the media behaviour in managing terrorism information (Western media provocation; media attention; media alteration; and media frighten) used as independent variables and the four variables relateto the influence of the mediatization (fear of terrorist news; fear of terrorist attack; change of habits; and change of impressions) used as dependent variables. The correlation is positive and strong in each scenario.

Tabella 2


3. Conclusion

This study examines the connection between the mediatization of terrorism and its consequences in influencing the audience. For this paper the audience is one very specific. The majority of respondents are under 34 years old, male with a military background with at least a high school education and a strong knowledge of terrorism topics. This specific audience could be interpreted as a limit for the research because it could be considerate a niche, but on the other side they are the mirror of the society including representation from different regions of the country therefore cultural background and education.

The methodology is based on twelve variableanalysing the mediatization of terrorism information through different sources, the media behaviour in managing the related information and the influence of the mediatization to the sample. It results that the information about terrorism are spread with the same power on all the media channels, having the television as main one. Between social media platforms, Facebook is the most receptive showing that further amendments to its framework are needed to offer a safer web environment.

In addition, the results highlight that the sample does not think that the friction between the Western and the Islamic world is due by a specific factor or by the Western media that in some instances are accused to not respect the Islamic values.

Something that its clear from the research is that the sample strongly considers that media are putting too much emphasis on the news related to terrorism actions, the information are altered for commercial reasons and this process creates fear between people.

On the other hand, the positive result is that the sample rejects to be concerned for its safety in terms of constant mediatization of terrorism news and the possibility to be a victim of a terrorist attack. Moreover, the sample does not change behaviour in its daily life or impression towards the Islamic community. Lastly, as a result the data show a strong correlation between the mediatization and its reaction in influencing people.



VLAD Vicentiu Cosmin [1]

CIOBANU Claudia-Ioana [2]

LUCA Florin-Alexandru [3]

[1] Universitatea Transilvania Brasov (ROMANIA).

[2] Technical University Gheorghe Asachi” of Iasi (ROMANIA).

[3]Technical University Gheorghe Asachi” of Iasi (ROMANIA).


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