What Causes Terrorism? China Says Blame the Internet
State-produced film claims foreign videos radicalize Chinese terrorists
On June 24, the state-owned network China Central Television aired a documentary about the Internet and terrorism. The film runs a spare 24 minutes and details the effects of foreign-produced “audio and video” on young radicals inside its borders.
With very few caveats—all delivered by an American pundit—the documentary attempts to draw a direct causal link between extremist videos online and terrorist actions offline.
CCTV produced the short film with the help of China’s State Internet Information Office, the Ministry of Public Security and the State Council Information Office. Despite the myriad bureaucratic agencies involved, the video is slick, well produced and to the point.
There’s also an English language version.
The first half of the video is all background information. It opens with footage of 9/11, then goes on to explain—in a broad sense—the impact of global terrorism since.
But then the focus narrows to China’s Xinjiang province and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. ETIM is a radical Uyghur separatist group operating in Xinjiang—an area ETIM calls East Turkestan. ETIM demands independence for East Turkestan, and the group has shown willingness to use violence.
The documentary blames China’s recent uptick in violent terrorism on the ETIM in general and their Internet videos in particular. It also emphasizes—over and over—that extremists produce the videos outside of China and imports them.
“Terrorism is a virus,” the voice-over declares. “The Internet has become a new battleground as ETIM increase online publication of propaganda, images designed to insight violence and terrorist training manuals.”
The documentary itself is no stranger to violent imagery. ETIM training videos play alongside actual attacks carried out by extremists in Xinjiang. “Videos that glorify violence cost little and spread quickly,” the narrators claim. “Often with horrific consequences.”
Yalikun Yakupu—the deputy director of public security in Xinjiang—told the camera that the ETIM is active on social media and uses “freely available” online tools to disseminate their propaganda.
“By downloading and watching the videos together,” Yakupu explains. “The terrorists recruit members and plan for violent jihad.”
Terrorism and the ‘Net
While much of the documentary’s claims are true, the producers make several arguments that are harder to believe.
For one, there is clear evidence some Chinese terrorist videos are produced outside China. But it’s in Beijing’s interest to downplay domestic causes of terrorism, and its security agencies don’t want anyone to think you can produce extremist videos inside the country and get away with it.
There’s also a correlation problem. Li Sheng—a professor at the Xinjiang Development Research Center—claims the Internet is directly responsible for terror. “People involved in ETIM terrorist acts must have seen videos inciting violent jihad and separatism,” Li says. “They must have seen them.”
Then the video deploys graphs to drive the point home. While displaying a spreadsheet showing increasing numbers of videos from ETIM, the narrator draws a causal link between those videos and a surge in terrorist attacks within China.
This isn’t particularly convincing. There could be more videos because the militants have become increasingly active—in both launching attacks and propagandizing. But again, it’s not completely wrong. The Internet may not cause terrorism, but it can help facilitate it.
Many respected agencies such as the Brookings Institution and the United Nations have studied the way extremist groups use the Internet to further their goals. Technologies have biases, and the Internet is biased towards the decentralized free flow of information.
That’s great for people who want to start a video blog about cats in video games, establish an Etsy shop or build a Web site for their business. It’s also great for terrorists who want to freely litter the public consciousness with violent videos and extremist messages.
Beijing’s answer to this problem? Censorship—and the video goes all the way in advocating for it.
The documentary also claims censorship needs to go worldwide in order to stop terrorism in China. “The [terrorist organizations] flourish in an environment that has no global regulatory framework or authority,” lamented the narrator.
“Protecting freedom of speech, including freedom of speech on the Internet is key,” says Li Wei, an anti-terrorism expert interviewed in the video. “However, making sure that freedom is not used by terrorists to get their message out is a question that doesn’t have a simple answer.”
The problem, as China demonstrates, is that the latter usually overrides the former.