An investigation into Islamic State’s (Isis) use of social media propaganda

How are Isis using social media and is it really effective? Is Isis’s presence online just a fad that’s soon to fade?

It is no secret that Isis have continued to amaze the western world with their ability to plant themselves in almost every inch of the online world, particularly their savvy way of using social media to spread their messages and create social media frenzy’s. As the Guardian’s Shiv Malik, Sandra Laville, Elena Cresci and Aisha Gani have expressed in their article ‘Isis in duel with Twitter and YouTube to spread extremist propaganda’, Isis have learnt the best ways to reach the highest volume of people by “piggybacking on popular internet hashtags and forums” as well as using a variety of different platforms and multiple back up accounts in order to remain firmly implanted on the internet. This article will delve further into the why’s and how’s of Isis’s social media campaign and look at its effectiveness. However well implanted Isis has been in the past, data suggests that people are ceasing to care and talking about it less. Is this the result of fighting back? Or is it just like any other fad, destined to fade.

It’s Isis’s clever use of branding and social media that are enticing the weak and the vulnerable.

YouTube

Young boy happily holds up ISIS flag

Young boy happily holds up ISIS flag in martial arts class. Taken from propoganda video on YouTube.

YouTube has been the platform that Isis seem to use most often, it is the most popular video streaming website with over 1 billion unique users.  Meaning the largest spread for extremist propaganda. However YouTube is the most ruthless of the social media sites and have very clear policies on what can and cannot be uploaded. As Jeff Bercovici explained, “YouTube didn’t have to draft any special plans to deal with the Sotloff video. The service’s community guidelines offered a half-dozen different grounds for removing the video” Meaning it can become increasingly harder for Isis to keep the content online.

The videos themselves have been created professionally and carefully. In one example a video shows a school, teaching boys that look as young as 7 or 8 martial arts and readings from the Quran. There is no gratuitous violence just happy boy’s. With the use of the Isis flag on the top right hand corner and in abundance through out in the background of the video, and flashing symbols and smart transitions they can create a professional looking video with the aim to entice parents into thinking, “Look what they can teach my boys, look how happy they are!” and with the increase in digital technology on phones and handheld cameras it’s easy to make quality videos and share them online.

Twitter

Twitter has proven to be one of the most desirable choices of online platform for Isis, its immediacy and popularity make it a perfect choice to spread propaganda. You can post anything to the site and anybody can read it, especially if you are piggybacking on trending hashtags. In this sense twitter is more like an open forum where everybody can participate and comment. Twitter has been especially useful to spread the beheading videos that were shared across the site both from Isis sympathisers and non-Isis sympathisers alike.

The social media giant has recently been clamping down on these videos and of extremist content by updating their policies and allowing the removal of inappropriate content. In an article by Hannah Parkinson, it is revealed how Twitter have been able to remove this content without breaching freedom of speech policies and how together with government agencies they are able to remove vast amounts of content. As Parkinson states, “It seems social media companies are beginning to take an editorial approach to the content they are hosting, and assuming an element of responsibility, shifting to a publishing role rather than merely providing a place for content.” Not only are the giants changing their game and fighting back against online extremism but the public themselves have started to realise the damaging effects of sharing Isis videos even if it is to condemn them. Now more and more content seizes to appear on Twitter in what seems to be a joint effort between the governments, the public and social media giants. 

Isis sympathiser twitter account

Isis sympathiser twitter account

Recruitment

Statistics show that this social media propaganda is working in recruiting people to join Isis. In a speech delivered by Home Secretary Theresa May in November 2014 she states how, “more than 500 British nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq, many of them to fight. And they have been joined by people now totalling thousands from other European and western countries.” And that Isis’s use of the “internet and social media means they have a significant propaganda reach right across the world. And there is evidence that as well as inspiring many young Muslims to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight, they have given energy and a renewed sense of purpose to subversive Islamist organisations and radical leaders in Britain.” This is evident from the propaganda videos, frequently giving what appears to be false information about what can be provided to the people moving over in order to entice them. In an article by Kevin Sullivan and Karla Adam for the Washington Post it was revealed how a family originally from London had relocated to the Islamic State under the assumptions that it could be a kind of Utopia, when “recent reports from Syria and Iraq suggest that the Islamic State’s propaganda about its public services does not match reality on the ground and that people are enduring painful shortages of electricity, food, medicine and clean water.” It’s Isis’s clever use of branding and social media that are enticing the weak and the vulnerable.

Creating Fear and Chaos

Not only do the violent extremist videos and social media propaganda cause widespread chaos online but they also cause chaos within society. Earlier this year, “JTAC – the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre – raised the threat level for international terrorism from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’. This means that JTAC believes an attack on the United Kingdom is highly likely”. Furthermore incidents such as the attack of Lee Rigby in broad daylight, created an eerie feeling that anybody could be next and more recently, “Roshonara Choudhry, a student from East London, was convicted of attempting to murder the MP Stephen Timms after being inspired by extremist sermons she had watched on the Internet.” In this way Isis can continue to spread chaos and fear within western society and make it abundantly clear that extremism is everywhere. Choudhry was not affiliated with any particular group, but just by using the internet and almost becoming addicted to extremist content she self-radicalised, proving the power of the internet and forcing society’s hand to crack down harder on online content.

Funding

Isis equipped with western guns and cars

Isis equipped with western guns and cars taken from mashable.com

Isis have been able to use social media and the Internet to become, “the richest terrorist group ever” as reported by Business Insider. By using techniques previously seen by the mafia, and informing funders and backers of their news through social media they have estimated figures of around 3 million dollars a day. In an article for the New York Times, Juan C. Zarate and Thomas M. Sanderson explain how Isis is a “leader in using new technologies and social media to raise awareness and reach individual donors. Appeals for donations (or investments) are tweeted while money is raised and sent via the Internet, then withdrawn in the form of bags of cash to be transported into the war zones.” Once again reflecting the ingenious way that Isis have used social media to their advantage.

What’s next?

 Although it seems as though Isis has been incredibly successful in using social media and indeed the evidence suggests that they have — they are the richest terrorist group ever, they are highly organised, ruthless and have created marketing and social media campaigns that have given themselves an identity and a brand that has enticed thousands of people to leave their homes and relocate to the Islamic State. Yet in recent weeks there has been a severe dip in the amount people talking about Isis, perhaps this is due to the fact that the public have fought back, they have agreed that they don’t want to see gruesome footage on their twitter feeds and the social media giants have been working hard with government agencies, like the one here in the UK to make sure that they don’t. CTIRU (counter terrorism Internet referral unit) have successfully removed 65,000 items from the internet that encouraged or glorified acts of terrorism. More than 46,000 of these have been removed since December last year and that’s up from the mere 18,000 items that was reportedly removed in 2013.

Fig.1 Interest over time. The blue line represents the term 'ISIS', the red represents the term 'Al-Qaeda', the green 'Islamic State' and the yellow 'terrorism'.

Fig.1 Interest over time. The blue line represents the term ‘ISIS’, the red represents the term ‘Al-Qaeda’, the green ‘Islamic State’ and the yellow ‘terrorism’. Data discovered using Goggle Analytics.

The figure below shows this huge dip (fig1) where mentions of Isis have peaked then dropped severely just like a fad that is fading. Michael White from the Guardian has reported, “Images in the British media last week demonstrate just how shallow and short-lived the Islamic State threat is likely to prove” it’s as though the excitement of the Isis propaganda whorl wind is ending, for now at least. But frighteningly another act of terror showcased online can start the ball rolling all over again and feed right back into Isis’s hands and as Dr Hogan stated on twitter, “ISIS’s success depends on far more complex factors than social media presence.” But surely breaking down their social media campaigns is a good place to start?

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