CRF Blog

Why ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War

by Bill Hayes

Wired magazine reports on Why ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War.

The Islamic State recognized the power of digital media early on, when its brutish progenitor, Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, discovered the utility of uploading grainy videos of his atrocities to the Internet. As the group evolved, its propagandists surpassed and humiliated their bitter rivals in al Qaeda by placing a premium on innovation. The Islamic State maximized its reach by exploiting a variety of platforms: social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, peer-to-peer messaging apps like Telegram and Surespot, and content sharing systems like JustPaste.it. More important, it decentralized its media operations, keeping its feeds flush with content made by autonomous production units from West Africa to the Caucasus — a geographical range that illustrates why it is no longer accurate to refer to the group merely as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a moniker that undersells its current breadth.

Today the Islamic State is as much a media conglomerate as a fighting force. According to Documenting the Virtual Caliphate, an October 2015 report by the Quilliam Foundation, the organization releases, on average, 38 new items per day — 20-minute videos, full-length documentaries, photo essays, audio clips, and pamphlets, in languages ranging from Russian to Bengali. The group’s closest peers are not just other terrorist organizations, then, but also the Western brands, marketing firms, and publishing outfits — from PepsiCo to BuzzFeed — who ply the Internet with memes and messages in the hopes of connecting with customers. And like those ventures, the Islamic State hews to a few tried-and-true techniques for boosting user engagement.

Among these is the group’s use of narrowcasting — creating varied content that caters to niche audiences. (Think of those BuzzFeed listicles aimed at groups like Army brats or Florida natives.) Only a fraction of the Islamic State’s online output depicts the kind of sadism for which the group is notorious: Far more common are portrayals of public-works projects, economic development, and military triumphs, frequently aimed at specific Muslim enclaves throughout the world. This content is meant to convince prospective recruits of the veracity of the organization’s core narrative: that its empire is both stable and inexorably growing. (The Islamic State’s slogan is “Baqiya wa Tatamaddad” — Remaining and Expanding.) So far, digital propaganda of this sort has helped motivate more than 30,000 people to turn their backs on everything they’ve ever known and journey thousands of miles into dangerous lands, where they’ve been told a paradise awaits.

But the most significant way in which the Islamic State has exhibited its media savviness has been through its embrace of openness. Unlike al Qaeda, which has generally been methodical about organizing and controlling its terror cells, the more opportunistic Islamic State is content to crowdsource its social media activity — and its violence — out to individuals with whom it has no concrete ties. And the organization does not make this happen in the shadows; it does so openly in the West’s most beloved precincts of the Internet, co-opting the digital services that have become woven into our daily lives. As a result, the Islamic State’s brand has permeated our cultural atmosphere to an outsize degree.

This has allowed the Islamic State to rouse followers that al Qaeda never was able to reach. Its brand has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that it has transformed into something akin to an open source operating system for the desperate and deluded — a vague ideological platform upon which people can construct elaborate personal narratives of persecution or rage. Some individuals become so engrossed in those narratives that they scheme to kill in the Islamic State’s name, in the belief that doing so will help them right their troubled lives. Here in the US, the group’s message has found a foothold among people who map their own idiosyncratic struggles and grievances, real or imagined, onto the Islamic State ideology. These half-cocked jihadists, while rare, come from all walks of American life, creating a new kind of domestic threat — one that is small in scale but fiendishly difficult to counter. [more]