Terrifying Tweets

IS is expertly using social media to fulfill its objectives. This makes it even harder to stop.

By Osama Al Sharif

The main objective of propaganda is to sway, influence, and manipulate public opinion. In today’s information age, it’s becoming increasingly sophisticated and, as a result, more difficult to identify and confront. No more is this more apparent than in dealing with terrorist groups like the Islamic State, otherwise known as IS.

IS, which is an offshoot of Al Qaeda, appeared on the world’s radar about three years ago. The Islamist militant group, fighting for a narrow and puritanical interpretation of Islam, has been credited for its creative use of social media to spread its message, lure new recruits, and communicate with followers. For a fundamentalist movement that wants to implement a regressive form of Sharia law and create an autocratic state, its capitalization of the information technology has been impressive.

In contrast to Al Qaeda, which first rose to prominence in the 1990s, IS has come a long way from using Internet chat rooms and sending video messages to Al Jazeera. Today, IS is believed to use a sophisticated network of followers and activists to communicate and spread the word on Twitter through multiple accounts. Since IS surfaced as a potent group with thousands of militants—many of them foreign—fighting within its ranks, it has captured public imagination in the region and in the West. Its extreme brutality has surpassed that of Al Qaeda in many ways, and its ability to recruit foreign jihadist has sounded alarm bells throughout the Western world.

According to an ABC news report published in early September: “Terrorism observers have noted IS’s media savvy, from viral meme-like postings and hashtag campaigns on Twitter to elaborate full-production videos –efforts that can multiply the perception of IS’s breadth and power in Syria and Iraq.” The most harrowing IS postings were the video clips showing the beheading of two American journalists, and a British aid worker in August and September.

IS is credited for using social media to directly post its message without the need of an intermediary. “In this new environment, the group’s media arm can upload its propaganda and see it spread globally in a matter of minutes or hours,” Jacob Siegel wrote on The Daily Beast recently. The group’s understanding of how both Facebook and Twitter work meant “it became easier for any fighter on the battlefield to pose next to mutilated bodies and post images that could easily be seen by anyone following the fighting,” he added.

But it was not all gore and blood. IS, using its network of Western-educated foreign jihadists, was able to launch a series of propaganda campaigns demonstrating its administrative abilities to govern areas under its control. Having foreign jihadists among its ranks it was now able to address Western audiences in their native tongues. Its tweets and retweets went viral, showing how IS was able to make good use of social media platforms. As confrontation with the US and the rest of Western countries became inevitable, IS hashtags caught the attention of millions. In a way they were able to beat the system since even Twitter acknowledged that it cannot monitor all tweets or all accounts. Even though Twitter and YouTube have waged their own response to IS by blocking accounts and launching their own hashtags, it is still possible for the militant group to get its message through.

According to experts, IS uses social media to achieve two goals: to scare and inspire. The first is directed to the majority of Westerners and even minorities in the region, and the second is aimed at inspiring would-be recruits.

Today it is believed that at least 3,000 Westerners are fighting with IS, prompting NATO to discuss ways to confront this emerging menace to the stability of the region and the world. Most foreign jihadists are recruited through social media, where IS posts video messages by Western jihadists urging potential recruits to come join the fight in Syria.

According to reports, the terror group now has its own multilingual media arm, which is behind the creation and distribution of glossy magazines and slick, professional-grade videos.

This is the nature of today’s conflicts, where the war on terror isn’t restricted to bombing fighters on the ground but chasing them online as well. This presents a problem since shutting IS down means that intelligence agencies are denied the opportunity to track militants and gather information about their activities, especially when on-the-ground information is scarce.