When the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) descended on the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, they didn’t just march into town—they simultaneously launched a Twitter hashtag campaign, #AllEyesonISIS. It was blitzkrieg with a digital marketing strategy.
Within hours, images of ISIS barbarity spread throughout the Arab world, sowing fear among Mosul’s residents and defenders. The social-media campaign gave an air of inevitability to the looming seizure of the city, and the atrocities that would follow. Despite the fact that they outnumbered the attacking ISIS force by 15-to-1, the Iraqi army units defending Mosul disintegrated and fled. A militia of no more than 2,000 ISIS fighters captured a city of 1.5 million.
From its start, social media has been integral to ISIS’s rise. It enables ISIS militants to raise its prestige among terror groups, and overtake older jihadist competitors like al-Qaeda. It serves to coordinate troops and win battles. And it allows the group to administer the territory under its control.
Now ISIS is using social media to expand its war far beyond its borders. What started with the choreographed execution video of James Foley, blasted across the Web through an army of dummy Twitter accounts, has now morphed into something more devious and distributed. Rather than calling followers to the front lines, ISIS’s social-media strategy cultivates them at home in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Asia. And it can use those followers to devastating effect, whether sending masked gunmen storming into the Paris Bataclan theater or inspiring an American citizen and his wife to massacre 14 co-workers at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California.
In the idealistic and early days of the Internet, many Silicon Valley pioneers thought that in creating a more connected world, they might also create a more peaceful one. The reality is more complicated. Global connectivity has brought many new opportunities, undoubtedly, but it has also bred a new generation of threats. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable that a militant in Syria might become pen pals with a lonely teenager in small-town America. These sorts of interactions now keep those at the FBI, NSA, and local law-enforcement agencies awake long into the night.
Yet in war, just as in nature, every action merits an opposite reaction. Over the past few years, many new forces have marshaled to engage ISIS in this war of social media. The United States has launched a constellation of social-media accounts to battle ISIS misinformation, while spies map ISIS networks through what they reveal of themselves online (one U.S. air strike was even guided in by an oversharing jihadist). Outside government, social-media companies have increasingly revised their own systems and terms of service in an effort to mop up terrorist accounts before they spread, as with Twitter’s recent ban of all “indirect threats of violence.” Hacker and independent activists are also playing an increasing role. Many associated with the hacking collective Anonymous, have taken to patrolling the darker places of the Internet, waging their own private fight to take down ISIS content wherever it is found. Some of them even named today, December 11, ISIS Trolling Day, an event dedicated just to making fun of the group.
So far, there is only one certainty in this fight. What ISIS has discovered—this very weird, effective new way of war—is not a novelty or a one-time thing. ISIS may have been the first to wield this cross of social media, terror, and war, but it will not be the last.
How ISIS Uses Social Media as a Weapon
Rather than a centralized master plan or single person in charge, the Islamic State’s social media campaign is networked, reflecting the networked nature of the space. The core of ISIS is seasoned veterans of the Iraqi insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion. Well versed in the power of the media, they have been joined by a new generation of Millennial recruits. The average age of foreign fighters who traveled to join ISIS is 24, meaning tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are what they’ve grown up with. In the context of global jihad, this is a dangerous combination.
Early on, ISIS became known for its slickly produced videos of foreign-hostage executions. Unlike other jihadist videos, these typically include a script, multiple high-definition camera angles, and even a graphical introduction to set the stage.
ISIS regularly records the executions of large groups of local prisoners in order to intimidate and demoralize the opposing units on the battlefield. The videos are also engineered to go viral: with unusual killings such as immolation, drowning, and even explosive collars, all set to a thundering male chorus.
Using careful planning and an army of Twitter bots, ISIS militants hijack unrelated hashtags to amplify their message and reach wider audiences. The group shouldered into online celebrations of the 2014 World Cup with an image of a decapitated head. The caption? “This is our football, it’s made of skin #WorldCup.”
Using a captured Western television journalist, ISIS staged a series of “investigative” reports. Geared toward potential Western recruits, the videos were in English and have tried to portray the attractiveness of life in the Islamic State.
Like any business or government, the Islamic State churns out a feed of regular announcements via social media that gives appearance of normality: In one, it announced the grand opening of a children’s hospital.
INSTAGRAMMING THE CALIPHATE
Many social-media accounts exist to highlight the lighter side of life in ISIS, trying to build its online image. The most bizarre might be “Cats of Jihad,” which gave ISIS fighters a chance to pose their cats with their guns.
CIVIC FORUM BOARDS
Writing on encrypted forum boards, ISIS militants discuss and plan many aspects of civic administration and operations.
In ISIS-controlled territory, day-to-day conversation has moved to services like Skype, Silent Circle, Telegram, and WhatsApp. Secure battlefield communications are sometimes carried out over encrypted messaging platforms like Kik.
ISIS fighters have flown small Web-linked drones above the battlefield, gathering real-time footage for valuable reconnaissance, as well as video for social-media propaganda.
Dabiq is a monthly English-language online publication that has higher production values than many Western magazines. It discusses issues of politics, faith, jihad, and bomb-making. The mastermind of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks was even featured in an earlier softball interview, asking how he could sneak through Europe as a known jihadist.
ISIS militants cultivate vulnerable recruits with sympathetic messages, and engage them via secure messaging services. Recruiters will occasionally ship gifts to the targets—and sometimes, even an airline ticket. If the recruit cannot travel, they are encouraged to launch terror attacks at home.
Holding sessions for potential applicants on Last.fm and other such question-and-answer discussion boards, ISIS fighters frankly discuss the ups and downs of their jobs.
(ISIS) Viral Marketing 101
Part of why ISIS has thrived in social media is that it follows the model of what has worked best for leading online figures and brands. According to Haroro J. Ingram, an expert on insurgent information operations at Australian National University, they are “more strategic plagiarists than geniuses.”
1. HAVE A CONSISTENT BRAND
Just as the Star Wars branding is consistent on the big screen or on a Happy Meal, so too is the Islamic State’s. The ISIS flag is extremely easy to draw and reproduce: monochromatic with two simple slogans: “There is no god but Allah. Mohammad is the messenger of Allah”/”Mohammed is the messenger of God.” The monochrome flag also has a long history in Eastern, Arabic, and Islamic tradition—hearkening back to one of the first flags purportedly used by the prophet Mohammad—while the slogans give the appearance of religious sanction to a group that has actually been condemned by leading Muslim scholars.
2. BE INTIMATE
At 78 million followers, singer Katy Perry is the queen of Twitter. Her posts are authentic—written like someone in a hurry who has taken a minute out of her day to talk to her friends. By the same token, ISIS propaganda often weaves in raw testimonials from their front-line fighters. ISIS fighters describe sharing meals and laughing together; they also celebrate comrades who’ve been killed.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant propaganda photo showing ISIS militants parading June 30, 2014 in Raqqa, Syria.
In the release of her 2015 music video for “Bad Blood,” singer Taylor Swift shared the spotlight with 17 other stars, including Selena Gomez, Lena Dunham, and Kendrick Lamar. These figures benefited from their association with Swift, while she expanded her reach to new fan bases. In the same way, ISIS permits other terrorist groups to swear bayat (fealty) to it and then weaves them into its social-media campaigns. Both groups expand their credibility, connection, and reach.
In early 2015, deals site Groupon featured the Banana Bunker, a storage unit for bananas. Anticipating more than a few lewd jokes on its Facebook page, the Groupon social-media team made jokes back—to every single post. The Banana Bunker sold out almost immediately. Likewise, many ISIS fighters often respond or field questions in social media. Audience engagement reached a new macabre low with a January hashtag in Arabic, “Suggest A Way to Kill the Jordanian Pilot Pig,” before a video was released of Capt. Moath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive.
5. WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS…TROLL
Businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has mastered a particular social-media strategy: He starts arguments with other high-profile figures, which then draws further attention to himself. Surprising to some, ISIS followers have actually welcomed debate about their many horrible and seemingly contradictory acts (for example, the above death by burning is banned by Islamic scripture), believing it widens their reach and gives them standing.
How to Win the War of Social Media
Message screen on a website hacked into by worldwide hacktivist group Anonymous hackers
With threats mounting, an unusual alliance has begun to fight back against ISIS’s social-media war. Governments have launched offices that monitor and refute terrorist propaganda in real time. Companies have set new rules of conduct to prevent ISIS from using their products. Community activists seek to identify and reach out to youth in danger of falling under the sway of ISIS recruiters. And members of the Anonymous hacking collective hunt and destroy ISIS websites in the darkest corners of the Internet. Together, this loose coalition seeks to rob ISIS of one of its most powerful weapons: kicking it out of the very social-media ecosystem that helped give it life.
Google, Twitter, and Facebook—platforms intended for free and unfettered speech—have aggressively revised their terms of service to ban jihadist content. Google’s YouTube now deputizes some human-rights groups as “trusted flaggers” to identify ISIS content; Twitter has banned “indirect threats of violence”; Facebook proactively removes known jihadists from its service.
TWITTER ACCOUNT HUNTING
Organized groups of hacktivists hunt down and report ISIS accounts on Twitter; they claim to have eliminated as many as 110,000. They use algorithms to flag these accounts hundreds of times in rapid succession.
Because accounts can be quickly re-created, activists have written programs to search for multiples of similar-sounding Twitter handles. ISIS militants have responded with programs that automatically hide these from activists.
DISTRIBUTED DENIAL OF SERVICE (DDoS) ATTACKS
Hackers use tens of thousands of linked computers (botnets) to overwhelm ISIS websites, sometimes burning out their physical servers.
Posing as potential recruits, hackers slowly gather data about their ISIS recruiters, using cyber forensics to identify and locate specific individuals. This information is then revealed to the world and passed to local authorities. One such tip, discovered by the hacktivists of Ghost Security, helped avert a July terror attack in Tunisia.
Hackers plunge into the deep Web, beyond the reach of normal search engines, to find and eliminate ISIS recruiting centers and bitcoin donation pages. In one instance, the Ghost Security Group (not to be confused with Ghost Security) replaced an ISIS propaganda hub with an advertisement for Viagra and Prozac.
REFUTING TERRORIST NARRATIVES The U.S. government manages a series of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr accounts, such as the “ThinkAgain TurnAway” series, to highlight and counter misinformation spread by ISIS.
TARGETED ADVERTISING The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a British think tank, has used Google search results (for example people searching “How do I get to Syria?”) to target at-risk users. They are sent instead anti-extremist Web videos that (initially) look like just another piece of ISIS propaganda.
COUNTER-ISIS HACKATHONS Australia is one among several countries that has launched national hackathons to convene Web developers and Muslim community leaders to engineer online tools that can help resist the group’s siren call. Ideas have included cooperative games, specialized social networks for Muslim youth, and even a “Tinder for mentoring.”
Both intelligence services and hackers use a variety of tactics to infiltrate jihadist forums. They become “flies on the wall” who gather information on who is recruiting and being recruited.
OPEN-SOURCE INTELLIGENCE GATHERING
Activists comb ISIS social media accounts for clues to upcoming attacks, passing them to local law enforcement. In July 2015, this kind of activity prevented a terror attack in Tunisia and led to the arrest of nearly a dozen militants.
Brave citizens in ISIS-administered territory launch blogs and Facebook pages to document ISIS war crimes, which are then posted online to refute the group’s propaganda of life in the caliphate. It is risky; those caught by ISIS face immediate execution.
Extremist Propaganda Throughout History
Inflammatory leaflets helped fuel the 1887 Haymarket Affair, a labor protest in the United States that led to a bombing by anarchists. In 1902, leaflets distributed by the Socialist Revolutionaries in Russia (who would ultimately overthrow the government) called for “terrorist” acts against the autocracy, among the first modern uses of the term.
Underground radio came to prominence during World War II as a way to organize partisan resistance movements, most notably in Nazi-occupied Europe.
1970s: Cassette tapes
Audio recordings of the sermons of the exiled Ruhollah Khomeini spread among protestors in Iran, helping to hurtle the nation toward revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini to the Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic of Iran. As one Iranian official would remark, “Tape cassettes are stronger than fighter planes.”
When the Soviet Union became bogged down in an insurgency in Afghanistan, blurry videos of the mujahedeen rebels proliferated across the Muslim world. Similar videos would emerge from mujahedeen, who would go on to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s. Emerging terrorist leaders like Osama Bin Laden, who recruited among the same networks, took to recording their messages on VHS, smuggling them to their followers, where they could be quickly recopied.
The first jihadist website, the Islamic Media Center, came online in 1991. Many more soon followed. These simple websites provided quick and universal access to jihadist literature. By the late 1990s, chat rooms and forum boards also became a regular feature of the sites.
2000s: Downloadable videos
Al Qaeda’s first online video, The Destruction of the American Destroyer [USS] Cole, was released in mid-2001. It took credit for a terror attack the previous year that had killed 17 American sailors. The world of terrorism and technology was set in motion for 9/11 and the Internet Age.