It was merely the dawn of social media when terror organisations first started using the internet to propagate their extremist ideologies. The platforms were not only rudimentary but played a largely inconsequential role in our lives. So while the Taliban, Hamas, and Al-Qaeda had an active online presence, it failed to penetrate society to the extent that ISIL does today. For networking sites are now an integral part of everyday life and perhaps as much a stronghold of the extremist group as Raqqa and Mosul – a consequence of two troubling facts; that the group emerged at the peak of the revolution and that the militants in control of the communications strategy are the very people who grew up alongside the platforms.
The Islamic State’s online identity has dominated media attention for some time, with particular regard given to the group’s radicalisation of users. Supporters and fighters alike use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Whatsapp, and Tumblr to try to lure users into joining their ranks – and their approach is quite unlike anything an extremist group has hitherto adopted.
Anyone who has tried to develop a following online will know the importance of frequent engagement – an aspect mastered by the militants responsible for recruitment. But this is not enough. What one communicates is of equal importance, and that is how ISIS are coaxing otherwise innocent children into fleeing to Syria.
Raw testimonials from front-line fighters, descriptions of social gatherings, celebrations of comrades who have died – the group’s posts are tinged with humanity. To most, they are disturbing attempts to civilise barbarity; but to anyone struggling with a sense of identity, particularly teenagers, ISIL becomes a path, a passion, a purpose.
Dr. John Horgan, an expert in analysing terrorist behaviour at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said that ISIS is successful in their radicalisation of teenagers because they recognise it requires a tailor-made effort.
“It’s that feeling we all had as teenagers: ‘I don’t belong here. I want something bigger. I want to do something better with my life.’ These are the types of things recruiters latch onto and exploit, and they’re very good at it. It’s a fantasy, ultimately, that recruiters will use to keep the conversation going.”
This sentiment is echoed by Zac Parsons, an organisational psychology consultant who focuses on online behaviour, who believes that ISIS exploits the fact that young people are trying to find their place in the world. “It’s a world that is clearly run by adults, and they want to be part of that.”
If only they knew that the world is not all it’s cracked up to be.
For the world they are so desperate to be a part of is a world wherein an extremist group is disseminating their message by way of choreographed execution videos. James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, and Peter Kassig. Five men to have died before our eyes in scripted, high definition films shot with drones and DSLR cameras. Five deaths to have been uploaded, announced, and circulated with a deplorable pride.
The group is further inclined to use videos for ‘documentaries’, or rather investigative reports into the Islamic State, intended to glamourise their lives and to send threats to countries and/or individuals – such as the video ‘Paris before Rome’, uploaded after the Paris Massacre. In the film, two extremists taunt French President Francois Hollande with more attacks, and threaten to render the White House black with their fire.
In terms of platforms, Twitter is seemingly the favourite. ISIL are known to co-opt hashtags in their efforts to broaden the reach of their terror. By including trending hashtags into their tweets, unwitting users, who were not necessarily searching for jihadi propaganda, are greeted by the group’s messages. The hashtags they create themselves gain trending status by way of organised campaigns, whereby the group enlists hundreds, sometimes thousands, of their activists to repetitively tweet hashtags at certain times of the day.
A report – ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa – published by George Washington University’s programme on extremism divided ISIS supporters on Twitter into three categories: the Nodes, who are the leading voices and generators of primary content; the Amplifiers, who retweet material; and the Shout-Outs, who promote the newly created accounts of suspended users.
According to the report, the latter are “vital to the survival of the ISIS online presence” as they help newly created accounts of suspended users to regain their pre-suspension status. “Although they tweet little substantive content, shout-out accounts tend to have the largest followings in the Twitter landscape and therefore play a pivotal role in the resilience of ISIS’s Twitter community.”
When it comes to more ‘personal’ discussions, however, the tech savvy terrorists use encrypted forum boards and secure messaging apps. They are known to enjoy ‘Telegram’, a highly secure messaging service which allows users to create ‘channels’ for unlimited broadcasting. ISIL utilises this feature to solicit targeted killings and unilateral attacks, or to give tutorials on weapon manufacturing.
Their digital footprint extends further into the art of innovation – namely, their very own app. ‘The Dawn of Glad Tidings’ is an Arabic Twitter application promoted by the jihadists as a way to keep up to date with “news from Iraq, Syria, and the Islamic world.” It posts tweets to a user’s account, the content of which is dictated by the one of the group’s ‘social media militants’. The same links, hashtags, and/or images are tweeted by the accounts of every person who has downloaded the app, but done so at intervals so as to avoid triggering the site’s spam detection algorithms. For the remainder of the time, it is business as usual for the user, who still maintains a degree of autonomy over their account.
The aim of ISIL’s social media strategy is to affiliate themselves in enough regions to be able to incite violence with a mere tweet, status, or message. Since September 2014, they have claimed responsibility for 60 attacks in regions other than those under their control. Whether they in fact had an active role in each attack is not known for certain, but the alternative – that the attacks were inspired by/ a tribute to them – is no better.
ISIL champions itself as the power that will ruin the West – and social media is helping it to do so.