Last Friday’s horrific attacks in Paris which resulted in the deaths of 129 people and injured hundreds more indicate the growing reach of the terror state known as ISIS. The group is the latest iteration of faith-based violent extremism that have grown out of the rubble of the Syrian civil war and post-occupation Iraq. While social media has been used to launch revolutions against tyrannical regimes, it is also being used by groups such as ISIS to spread their message of hate, recruit susceptible youth, and project power all over the world. The group has launched or inspired attacks in over 20 countries (NYT).
The use of digital media has played a key role in their recruitment drive resulting in the recruitment of up to 20,000 foreign fighters — 1/10th of whom have come from Western countries (The Week). ISIS has used a variety of digital channels ranging from twitter to modding games and even using drones to capture stunning video footage. The group has at least five media production organizations with translations in virtually all of the world’ s major languages — including sign language (NBC). They have been able to produce such a high-volume of high-quality content due in part to rich coffers from the $2 billion a year they accrue from the sale of oil, tolls, sexual slavery, and taxes. (Independent)
Here is a breakdown of how ISIS uses digital strategy to promote terror:
1. A Force to Be Reckoned With
Twitter is the cornerstone of the group’s digital strategy. 80% to 90% of its social media comes from twitter with a projected 46,000 to 70,000 accounts all over the world that are linked to promoting messages of hate (NYT). There are an estimated 21,000 English-language followers alone. (CNN) Most content comes from 2,000 over-performers that tweet in bursts of 50 or more tweets per day with each of these over-performers having an average of 1,004 followers. The result is an astonishing estimated 200,000 tweets per day. (The Brookings Institute)
2. Content: From the Banal to the Gruesome
The messaging that ISIS uses can be broken down into two types: content for recruitment and content for its enemies.
Content for recruitment includes breaking news from the front line, encouraging Western Muslim youth to “take things into their own hands” and engage in lone-wolf attacks, book reviews of their ideological text “The Management of Savagery” (Reuters), their online magazine “Dabiq” (which reads like a monthly company newsletter with how-to-guides, statistics, key victories, etc) (Sydney Morning Herald), videos such as Mujatweets which function like an AMA session (Military.com), mods for games like Grand Theft Auto and Arma 3 which allowers players to live the life of an ISIS recruit going around shooting and blowing things up (Daily Mail), and the use of rap and religious melodies called nasheeds. The group even has its own Arabic-language mobile app called “Dawn Glad Tidings” which allows users to get pro-ISIS alerts and automatically retweets pro-ISIS messages (The Atlantic).
Content for its enemies includes Hollywood-style feature-length films such as “The Flames of War” threatening countries of terror attacks and mired occupations if they attempt to intervene in the region (Vice). The group’s followers systematically hijack trending hashtags to promote their message of hate (CBS). Their content includes videos of beheadings, burnings, and torture (International Business). The group terrorizes soldiers by posting their personal information publicly on social media, encouraging lone-wolf attacks against them and their families (ABC News).
3. Sophisticated Division of Labor
Based on my own mining of Twitter data, I’ve identified at least six different types of roles adopted by pro-ISIS Twitter: (a) “Reporters”: users that convey breaking news regarding ISIS with minimal commentary serving as alternative on-the-ground media, (b) “Reconnectors”: who post no overt messages regarding ISIS and seem like innocent accounts except that they retweet the usernames of violent extremists who created new accounts after their previous ones were suspended, (c) “Intellectuals”: who use philosophy, economics, and political theory to justify what ISIS is doing without overtly supporting them, (d) “Fanboys”: users that have images in their profiles that endorse the Islamic State or post messages celebrating its victories, (e) “Recruiters”: other users will direct potential recruits to these accounts which are usually private and after an initial direct message will take the conversation to encrypted channels, and (f) “Mujahideen”: individuals that are actually fighting on the frontlines and showing a “heroic” image of what it is like to be living in the so-called Islamic State.
4. Ineffective Responses
There have been four primary responses to the group on twitter. The first is Twitter itself which has been playing whack-a-mole in attempting to suspend accounts. The strategy has been largely ineffective with extremists just recreating their accounts over and over again — some are in their 100th account and mock at Twitter’s attempts to stifle their speech. The second response has been by hacktivists such as Anonymous which recently declared total war on the group (Yahoo). They have taken down 149 ISIS-linked websites, flagged 101,000 twitter accounts, and flagged 5,900 propaganda videos via channels such as youtube. The third response has been by government agencies such as the State Department with its “Think Again, Turn Away” campaign which promotes media coverage of setbacks and defeats of the organization. The campaign has been highly criticized in the media. The twitter account has only 23,800 followers and has issued a paltry 9,452 tweets. The Facebook page fares no better with about 11,000 fans. The final group that has taken on ISIS are Muslim Clergy such as the contingent of international theologians and jurists that issued the “Letter to Baghdadi.” The letter has been shared 20,000 times on facebook and 1,400 times on twitter. With such minimal reach, ISIS never even bothered issuing a response.
ISIS is essentially crowdsourcing its digital strategy. A similar massive operation needs to be developed in order to effectively blunt its outreach efforts. Members of the big data community, technologists, creatives, and digital strategists need to come together and coordinate with religious leaders, social media companies, and government agencies to develop an effective counter-messaging effort. In an upcoming article, I will highlight potential responses.