ISIS’ Use of Social Media
Written by Kailey Nordgran
In 2013, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS began to study the West’s media so they could understand how best to mimic its methods of persuasion (Koerner, 2017). About a year later, in 2014, ISIS’s use of social media started, when they systematically leveraged technology and operated like a digital marketing team (DiResta, 2018). ISIS quickly built a brand on social media with tens of thousands of followers (How ISIS). Abu Musab al-Zarqawai, an ISIS leader, believed that they were “…in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma [Muslim people]” (Koerner, 2017). The organization’s strategic use of social media demonstrates the resourcefulness of the terrorist organization, which recruited an estimated 40,000 foreign nationals from 110 countries (Ward, 2018).
The Islamic State recognized the power of digital media early on, when Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, its progenitor, uploaded videos of his atrocities to the Internet (Koerner, 2017). Over time, ISIS maximized its reach through several social media platforms (Koerner, 2017). Some of the main social media platforms that ISIS uses to release their propaganda are Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube (Patrikarakos, 2017). As of October 2015, research shows that the organization releases, on average, 38 new items per day. These items include 20-minute videos, documentaries, photo essays, audio clips, pamphlets, and more (Koerner, 2017). Along with creating and releasing videos, the Islamic State has now started to attached GoPros to their weapons, resulting in first-person scenes (Koerner, 2017).
ISIS has been repeatedly as the most adept terrorist group at using Internet and social media propaganda to recruit new members (Alfifi, Kaghazgaran, Morstatter). To persuade foreigners to emigrate to the Islamic State, ISIS produces literature and videos to emphasize its alleged utopian aspects, particularly the freedom from religious persecution (Koerner, 2017). The basis of ISIS’s propaganda is an Islamic utopia (Prajuli, 2018). The propaganda addresses national, local, and tribal grievances (Talbot, 2016). In September of 2017, the Indonesian police discovered that around 600 Indonesians had joined ISIS (Prajuli, 2018). Several of those that were recruited imagined the Islamic State of being a better place to live because of the organization’s use of photos and videos through social media (Prajuli, 2018).
Due to ISIS’ loss in territory since 2017, their use of social media changed to maintain power (Ward, 2018). Rather than calling followers to the front lines, ISIS’s social media strategy cultivates them at home in the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia (Singer, Emerson, 2015)). In November of 2018, RAND Europe found evidence of ISIS using social media platforms to recruit, radicalize and coordinate attack in Africa (Ward, 2018). Social media has given terrorists the ability to directly come into contact with their target audience and either spread terror or recruit (Alfifi, Kaghazgaran, Morstatter).
Types of Propaganda Used on ISIS’s Social Media
- Choreographed Videos: Includes a script, multiple high-definition camera angles, and a graphical introduction to set the stage.
- Civic Forum Boards: ISIS militants discuss and plan many aspects of civic administration and operations
- Mass Executions: ISIS regularly records the executions of large groups of local prisoners to intimidate the opposing units on the battlefield.
- Secure Messaging: Day-to-day conversation has moved to services like Skype, Silent Circle, Telegram, Kik and WhatsApp.
- Hashtag Hijacking: ISIS militants hijack unrelated hashtags to amplify their message and reach wider audiences.
- Battlefield Drones: ISIS fighters have flown small Web-linked drones above the battlefield, gathering real-time footage for social-media propaganda.
- Online Magazines: Dabiq, an ISIS magazine, discusses issues of politics, faith, jihad, and bomb-making.
- “Documentaries”: ISIS staged a series of “investigative” reports geared toward potential Western recruits to portray the attractiveness of life in the Islamic State
- Targeted Enlistment: ISIS militants cultivate vulnerable recruits with sympathetic messages, and engage them via secure messaging services. Recruiters will occasionally ship gifts and airline tickets. If the recruit cannot travel, they are encouraged to launch terror attacks at home
- Press Releases: The Islamic State churns out a feed of regular announcements via social media that gives appearance of normality.
- Instagramming the Caliphate: Many social-media accounts exist to highlight the lighter side of life in ISIS, trying to build its online image.
- Immigrant Testimonials: Fighters tell their stories in their native languages, speaking about not being permitted to practice “true Islam” in their home countries. These testimonials usually involve clips of their children attending schools, playing in gardens, and eating enticing meals.
- Economic News: Blue-collar workers go about their daily business in a cheerful manner. These people include farmers tilling crops, bakers rolling dough for bread, shopkeepers making change for satisfied customers and more.
- Battle Porn: Islamic State soldiers fire mortar rounds and rockets toward unseen enemy positions while a cappella holy songs are played in the background.
- Valentines to the State: Merchants and other businessmen interact with the Islamic State’s government employees and pronounces themselves of being grateful for the order that the Islamic State has installed.
- Mergers and Acquisitions: Members of terrorist groups from far-flung locales, pledge their allegiance by reciting an oath to the camera and then giving each other hugs.
Alfifi, Majid, Parisa Kaghazgaran, James Caverlee, and Fred Morstatter. Measuring the Impact of ISIS Social Media Strategy. Publication. Department of Computer Science & Engineering, Texas A&M University. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University. 1-4. http://snap.stanford.edu/mis2/files/MIS2_paper_23.pdf
DiResta, Renee. “How ISIS and Russia Manufactured Crowds.” Wired. March 14, 2018. Accessed February 13, 2019. https://www.wired.com/story/isis-russia-manufacture-crowds/.
Koerner, Brendan I. “Why ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War.” Wired. May 01, 2017. Accessed February 13, 2019. https://www.wired.com/2016/03/isis-winning-social-media-war-heres-beat/.
Patrikarakos, David. “Social Media Spreads Terrorism and Propaganda.” Time. November 02, 2017. Accessed February 13, 2019. http://time.com/5008076/nyc-terror-attack-isis-facebook-russia/.
Prajuli, Wendy Andhika. “On Social Media, ISIS Uses Fantastical Propaganda to Recruit Members.” The Conversation. September 18, 2018. Accessed February 13, 2019. http://theconversation.com/on-social-media-isis-uses-fantastical-propaganda-to-recruit-members-86626.
Singer, P.W., and Emerson Brooking. “Terror On Twitter.” Popular Science. December 11, 2015. Accessed February 13, 2019. https://www.popsci.com/terror-on-twitter-how-isis-is-taking-war-to-social-media.
Talbot, David. “Fighting ISIS Online.” MIT Technology Review. February 01, 2016. Accessed February 13, 2019. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/541801/fighting-isis-online/.
Ward, Antonia. “ISIS’s Social Media Use Poses a Threat to Stability in the Middle East and Africa.” RAND Corporation. December 11, 2018. Accessed February 13, 2019. https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/12/isiss-use-of-social-media-still-poses-a-threat-to-stability.html.