In the last few weeks the terrorist group known as ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham) has managed to decisively defeat the Iraqi army and take over the northern half of the country. While many commentators have speculated as to how a previously obscure group managed to achieve such stunning success against a US backed force, the answer lies as much with social media prowess as it does in military force.
For all intents and purposes ISIS is the first terrorist group in the world to effectively use social media and digital communications to promote itself. From a distributed web of radicals across the Middle East and further afield, the group has managed to leverage these new media networks to gain followers, broadcast victories and terrify opponents into submission. But what exactly have they been doing that is so successful?
The first major area in which ISIS operates online is on Twitter. Through a multitude of proxy accounts, terrorists tweet out information and pictures, often with incredibly violent content to a wider audience. Through the savvy use of trending hashtags, such those involving Football World Cup games, these people are able to rapidly reach a wider global audience. In addition, such is the media prowess of this group, that they are able to tweet in a large number of languages, including English, Arabic and Turkish.
Twitter has attempted in recent days to shut down ISIS affiliated accounts, helped by a grassroots hashtag campaign ‘#no2ISIS’, which encouraged users to report these accounts. Despite this, Twitter has been unsuccessful in removing the bulk of the propaganda accounts for ISIS, and wannabe jihadists can easily access information from the terrorist group.
Stranger still, much like a tech startup, ISIS has an app. An app affiliated with the radical group ,‘Dawn of Glad Tidings’, also known simply as ‘Dawn’ appeared on the Android Google Play store recently. Primarily, that app acted as a propaganda funnel, proving the user with a constant stream of jihadist material, encouraging radicalisation, and providing information on how to join ISIS. Luckily, as soon as this app was brought to the attention of Google, it was promptly removed from the app store.
Beyond these mediums, ISIS and affiliated groups are also known to operate accounts on Instagram, Facebook and Google+. In addition, they post prolific amounts of graphic video content to Youtube and Liveleak, including propaganda ‘documentaries’ with alarmingly high production values. In the last few weeks they have also released a full length movie, titled “The Clanging of Swords IV”.
The use of social media by terrorist groups marks the beginning of a new paradigm in counterterrorism.
It is this kind of social media prowess which makes ISIS so dangerous. While its core group of fighters only numbers in the thousands, it is able to reach an audience in the hundreds of millions through the internet. While very few people as a percentage support ISIS, those who do, are never far away from accessing content which further radicalises them. This is useful for ISIS in gaining a constant stream of new fighters, especially from within Muslim communities in the West.
Clearly, the use of social media by terrorist groups marks the beginning of a new paradigm in counterterrorism. Governments and tech companies need to work together to both neutralise the media influence of these groups and counter this propaganda with their own education and information.
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