Memes tools of terrorism: University of Nebraska-Omaha leads international discussion

Memes can be hilarious -- but they can also terrorize.
Memes can be funny, or even annoying -- but they can also be used to terrorize.
Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 10:18 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Those viral online imitations -- memes, as they’re called -- can be more than just funny or annoying.

They can be terrorizing.

“A click, a save, a retweet...yeah, a like, that was one of the techniques we learned about today in the panel,” said Gina Ligon, director of the National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology and Education Center (NCITE). “Even liking them can alert a terrorist you’re sympathetic to their ideals.”

She’s referring to Thursday’s international panel discussing terrorists’ use of memes. More than 200 government officials and members of the public joined online.

“I first started studying them when ISIS was using them to recruit English speakers,” Ligon said. “They would do memes with ISIS fighters with kittens, and they would spread like wildfire online because they were so disparate to have a kitten with an ISIS fighter...and now, one of the reasons we held this, after the Buffalo attack this summer...that shooter had a ton of memes in his [posts].”

“We’re not just concerned about violent memes, we’re concerned about how violent memes might impact as violence in real life,” said NCITE researcher and panelist Kat Parsons.

Parsons is one of more than 50 NCITE researchers at universities across the nation. She shared some of her current studies into how memes can be used to spread violent beliefs. She was joined on the online panel by Oliver Goodman of U-K- based Moonshot, which “works to develop technologies and methodologies to expose threats, disrupt malicious actors, and protect vulnerable audiences online” as well as Arthur Bradley, the open source intelligence manager at Tech Against Terrorism.

“You’re on, scrolling Instagram, someone shares a funny meme and you start following an account, then suddenly they start sharing amongst those funny memes things that are kind of racist,” Parsons said. “So what we can see then is that memes are very much a way to get people in the door.”

Ligon cautions that online radicalization strategies aren’t just coming from some far-away land.

“I think for Nebraskans, what’s important for me, is this idea that they cross ideology,” Ligon said. “It’s not just ISIS using memes, it’s not just al-Qaeda, that there are lots of antisemitic memes that are floating around out there from some of the domestic groups. We saw a huge spike in those over the last year alone. And just being aware that your kids or people that you love are experiencing that kind of online content that they might not even realize that they’re clicking on, or liking something that was actually generated by a domestic extremist.”

Much of the research continues to evolve, with solutions and strategies to follow through counterterrorism centers like NCITE.