Why you should care
Understanding that ISIS is a media organization is critical to defeating it, say two Israeli counterterrorism researchers.
The Islamic State: They’re just like us. That’s the message ISIS tries to convey to frustrated Muslim youth around the world. While footage of the terror group’s brutal, live-action murders and rampages has gripped the West and Muslim worlds alike, it’s just the tip of a far more sophisticated recruitment strategy, one that rivals social-media campaigns by the most savvy of advertising agencies.
The key? ISIS has used social media to create a virtual community, flexible enough to let young people flesh out their identities. When it comes to radicalization, Twitter and YouTube have assumed the role once reserved for the charismatic religious leader, inspiring recruits to leave behind their normal existences and join a holy war. Indeed, on social media, ISIS is about engaging youth in their own cultural language.
And so, much like any organization trying to build a brand and engage a following, the terror group grants its fighters time between battles to tweet, blog, answer questions on Ask.fm and upload photos to Instagram — about not just war exploits but also life away from the battlefield. Pictures on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr show ISIS followers eating pizza, browsing through farmers markets, enjoying movie nights, riding Ferris wheels and playing video games. These images describe the bond of brotherhood, the fulfillment of identity and the purpose of jihad. Their lives reflect a community accepting only the Shariah laws, woven as a story to those seeking purpose and helping illustrate to would-be followers that daily life as an ISIS member isn’t all that different from their own. All this, too, provides living proof of the existence of an Islamic State.
Countering ISIS’ growing social media presence is really about creating a counternarrative.
ISIS urges those campaigning to provide awareness to the Muslim youth that the war is not against the “Islamic State” but against Islam, a message they convey on platforms ranging from jihadi forums and literature to merchandise and gaming. ISIS has been able to embolden disaffected individuals globally to commit themselves to jihad or hijrah. The overwhelming response to the virtual community that ISIS has built has been startling. Each day, approximately 90,000 pro-ISIS tweets course across Twitter from so-called fanboys, using hashtags like #IslamicStateMedia and #AMessageFromISIStoUS.
So how to fight ISIS’ media strategy? An international alliance of social networks and large Internet engines could help curtail ISIS’ ability to use cyberspace. But outright censorship seems impractical because ISIS’ social media is like the Hydra of Greek mythology: Cut off one ISIS account, and immediately a new thread, account or email pops up. To wit, one ISIS fighter alone has created more than 78 Twitter accounts. Monitoring every single ISIS account, removing all graphic videos and pictures and erasing literature online are all technically impossible. Besides, ISIS’ media strategy has an upside for those fighting it, because it provides a trove of cyber intelligence in social media to identify and track threats.
Countering ISIS’ growing social media presence is really about creating a counternarrative, responding to ISIS’ recruitment videos and literature and providing detailed counterpoints to its fallacies. The Obama administration has established the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) to “coordinate, orient and inform government-wide foreign communications activities targeted against terrorism and violent extremism.” It’s a good start, but to be effective, it must include the moderate Islamic community. Without an intimate understanding of Islam nationality and Muslim youth culture, the CSCC will fail — it would be like a vegan activist leading a social media campaign for McDonald’s.
The key to defeating ISIS is realizing, first off, that this is not just a violent terrorist group but also a slick media operation, with modern technological savvy and an eager young audience. Holding ISIS’ propaganda to account, using the same social media techniques, has the potential to put a serious dent in ISIS’ narrative. But in the same way we are fighting bombs with bombs, with ISIS, we must fight tweet with tweet.