Why the Terrorist Group Is Winning on Social Media
by Audrey Alexander
From Twitter to Telegram, ISIS sympathizers continue to set up camp on social media platforms around the world. While some of the outlets are far-reaching and transparent, others are insular and protected. The range of platforms, the diffusion of sympathizers, and the sheer volume of content make it difficult for governments and private companies to contain the online ISIS threat. To begin doing so, it is necessary to understand the external factors that have shaped ISIS’s communications strategy.
On a strategic level, ISIS is winning the war on social media with effective branding, information distribution, and agenda-setting. For example, in the wake of violent attacks, it has become commonplace for counterterrorism analysts to search for press releases claiming affiliation by Amaq News Agency. In an analysis of the ISIS manual, Media Operative, You Are a Mujahid, Too, the terrorism researcher Charlie Winter argues that the organization’s marketing approach allow ISIS to “forcibly inject itself into the global collective consciousness.” But the group is fundamentally dependent on platforms it cannot control, which leaves it vulnerable to changing regulations and security measures. For example, in August 2015, U.S. authorities arrested Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla, after the couple disclosed their plans to travel to ISIS-controlled territory to undercover agents on multiple social media platforms, including Twitter. In Syria, a targeted strike reportedly killed Junaid Hussein after the British recruiter and hacker left an Internet cafe in Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital.
From content-based regulations to account suspensions, Twitter’s well-publicized efforts to deconstruct ISIS’ presence on their site have yielded mixed results. Since mid-2015, Twitter has shut down 360,000 accounts for violating the company’s policies related to the promotion of terrorism, but sympathizers continue to create new accounts every day. In a similar vein, Facebook and Google have, to varying degrees of success, promoted countermessaging campaigns. The U.S. government’s approach, colloquially known as the Madison Valleywood Project, implores tech and entertainment companies to aid the fight against terrorism, particularly through counternarratives and robust enforcement of their respective terms of service.
Apparently feeling vulnerable to the vagaries of social media companies and their changing regulations, in March 2015, ISIS supporters reportedly launched a networking site called KhelafaBook, which claimed to offer an alternative to adherents banned from traditional platforms. The amateur site, which allegedly relied on a domain purchased from a Western company, went down shortly after its release. More refined communication efforts continue across various parts of the web; password protected forums and tools such as Tor, an anonymous browser, remain critical resources for tech-savvy jihadists.
ISIS supporters have also addressed account suspensions by simply migrating between platforms. To avoid detection and mitigate security risks, many sympathizers transition from broad-based public platforms, such as Twitter or Facebook, to private email services and messaging applications that offer encryption technology, including ProtonMail, Surespot, and Telegram. Due to the opacity of these technologies, it is hard to gauge the number of sympathizers on each platform. Even so, in a 2016 report titled Tech for Jihad, researchers Laith Alkhouri and Alex Kassirer wrote that Telegram now “appears to be the top choice among both individual jihadists and official jihadist groups.”
Another ISIS strategy is to create multiple accounts as insurance against shutdowns. Missouri resident Safya Yassin, for example, made several Twitter accounts to transmit ISIS’s message of violent jihad, including threats to injure federal government personnel. At the time of her arrest in January 2016, despite numerous account suspensions for violating Twitter’s terms of service, the FBI had identified 97 accounts that were “likely” linked to Yassin.
Furthermore, Terrence McNeil, an Ohio man arrested for allegedly soliciting the murder of members of the U.S. military, maintained several pro-ISIS Twitter accounts and profiles on Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, and Google+. Similarly, Abdi Nur, a Minnesotan who went to Syria in 2014, communicated with a cluster of peers in the U.S. and abroad using Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Kik, and Ask.fm. Instead of concentrating their efforts on one medium, users like these promote ISIS’s message across several platforms, ensuring digital survival if one account is terminated.
ISIS’s deep reach in the digital sphere poses a major obstacle for those seeking to challenge the movement. Consequently, it is time to reimagine the strategy for countering ISIS social media propaganda. Existing initiatives, although well meaning, focus a lot of energy on a few prolific, broad-based platforms; while some opt to silence violent rhetoric, others strive to amplify counternarratives. Google’s Jigsaw, for example, created the so-called Redirect Method to confront online radicalization by diverting sympathizers “towards curated YouTube videos debunking ISIS recruiting themes.” Unfortunately, approaches such as these may not necessarily reach users who access extremist content using tools like Tor or Telegram. Far-reaching initiatives, while innovative, are quickly rendered obsolete in an era where ISIS sympathizers are always adapting across a range of platforms.
Smarter, more diffuse measures that evolve in real time—such as digital embedding—are therefore necessary. Digital embedding refers to a process through which non-ISIS entities, ranging from law enforcement personnel to journalists, fix themselves at the heart of pro-ISIS networks by traversing the same media landscape as their adversaries. This way, they can also keep tabs on the group’s strategy and various members’ networks as they evolve in real time. On Telegram, for example, law enforcement officials might find evidence linking a suspicious user to a separate blog site, while independent activists commandeer pro-ISIS channels with alternative narratives. In both instances, the success of the actor depends on their ability to occupy the same virtual space as ISIS-sympathizers. Particularly among counterterrorism forces, this process requires an agile balance of sufficient resources, namely technical know-how, subject-matter expertise, and time.
Digital embedding may be difficult, but it is worth the effort. The widespread dissemination of three fabricated issues of Rumiyah, ISIS’s virtual English-language magazine, shows why. In January, February, and March of 2017, unknown sources used social media platforms to spread the falsified documents, which offered less manicured graphics and alternative content. As some of the files were rumored to contain viruses and tracking software, many ISIS-sympathizers on Telegram expressed anxiety about their operational security, dissuading others from clicking on the link or downloading the magazine file. Although the effects of such schemes are difficult to quantify, anecdotally the effort provoked concern in ISIS’s social media channels without pushing droves of users to other, more protected platforms. To complement counternarrative and content-removal efforts on far-reaching mediums, future initiatives need to meet ISIS sympathizers where they are.
Past attempts to restrict ISIS online have decentralized the organization in the digital sphere, making the group less organized but harder to monitor. The more platforms ISIS uses, and the further its adherents go underground, the more difficult it becomes for law enforcement officials, policymakers, researchers, and others to access sympathizers and understand the scale and depth of the group.
Rather than pushing supporters from one platform to the next, initiatives should consider ways to encircle the organization where it exists by striking a balance between regulation, censorship, expulsion, and counter information. If ISIS sympathizers can demonstrate fluidity, ingenuity, opportunism, and resilience online, policymakers, law enforcement officials, and media technology companies must follow suit.
This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs