In September 2014 I wrote an op-ed for Sojourners about why Westerners join ISIS. The piece focused on sociological factors behind some Westerners’ choice to devote themselves to such a violent group. Needless to say, the piece attracted attention.
Most notably, an ISIS supporter contacted me on Twitter to let me know what I got wrong. The exchange with @DarAlHaq, who had an ISIS flag as his cover photo and regularly posted photos and stories from the front in Syria and Iraq, was removed within minutes of it occurring. Fortunately, I took screenshots of our conversation. Further, within days, I had conversations with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and faced extra scrutiny while traveling in the Middle East in summer 2015.
The American Society of News Editors has paid close attention to, and been part of the conversations concerning, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA). According to the ASNE, the bill would broaden the amount of digital information held by the government, reduce privacy protections allowing law enforcement to obtain information they deem “cyber threat indicators,” and protect from disclosure anything relating to cyber threat indicators. The definition of what these “cyber threat indicators” might be include just about anything relating to cybersecurity whether or not disclosure of that information actually constitutes a cybersecurity threat.
As part of my research on global Islam and in-line with my news reporting, analysis and commentary as an active member of the religion beat, I regularly engage with members of so-called “Islamic extremist” groups, download material such as ISIS’s Dabiq magazine, and interact with “Islamophobia” organizations and communities. I am sure that some of you, my fellow religion newswriters, are involved with similar activities.
While I understand the necessity of paying due attention to the online activities of potential terrorists — both foreign and domestic — in a digital age where violent extremists are able to use digital media to their nefarious advantage I am increasingly wary of efforts by governments to have their noses so firmly pressed into our digital business. Whether we are academics or journalists we must be wary of legislation such as the CISA bill that could unilaterally curtail our privacy, fair use capabilities and journalistic freedom and integrity.
Already, the government is active online and watching for keywords and triggers that indicate the poorly explained “cyber threat indicators.” My story intimates as much.
With that in mind, I am aware of the risk I run in engaging in such research online. I think we all need to be properly attuned to the intricacies of homeland security measures and the danger they pose on our beat, especially as it is related to research and reporting on religious extremist groups. At the same time, let us thank our stars that, thus far, we don’t have to register with the government if we want to download Dabiq (as is the case in the United Kingdom, for example) or fear further vicissitudes of government surveillance.
As members of the RNA I believe we should stand behind the ASNE and its vigilant watch over the proceedings in Congress concerning CISA and the potential threat it poses to our journalistic and academic endeavors. I adjure you to follow along as well and be part of the ever-growing group of editors, journalists and others who are voicing concern.
*This piece originally appeared as part of the Religion Newswriters Association E-Extra Newsletter & is reprinted here by the author.