News / Middle East

ISIL Wages Skilled Social Media War

Demonstrators in support of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, June 16, 2014.
Demonstrators in support of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, June 16, 2014.
Doug Bernard
— Much of the struggle between the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has played out along military or geopolitical lines.

But the ISIL is also vying for control of Iraq on the online field.

 
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
 
  • Formed by members of al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria and Iraq
  • Aims to establish an Islamic emirate across Syria and Iraq
  • Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq
  • Believed to have 5,000 to 7,000 fighters
  • Has launched high-profile attacks in both countries
​If one of the ultimate goals of social media is to provide a megaphone for your group, amplifying its apparent size and popularity, then it could be said that ISIL is currently winning the Twitter war against the Iraqi government.

Even before ISIL – also known as ISIS – forces began their advance into the heart of Iraq toward Baghdad, they unleashed a barrage of social media posts across a wide range of platforms clearly aimed at encouraging its supporters and frightening its opponents.

The well-funded ISIL has developed a reputation for using sophisticated tactics on Twitter, spreading the group’s militant messages and raising concerns in the Iraqi government even higher.

So far, in fact, it appears the Iraqi government hasn’t been able to respond in kind, with some analysts wondering if they ever will, given the dysfunctions of Baghdad and the whims of social media.

Social media success

“ISIS is much more effective at the use of social media than almost any other extremist group I’ve seen,” terrorism analyst J.M. Berger told VOA. “And frankly, they’re better than a lot of non-extremist groups.”

Berger’s specialty is the study of how extremist groups use social media to win new audiences, and he says this group appears to have brought an unusual level of skill and foresight to the Internet battle.

In a feature published online at TheAtlantic.com, Berger wrote how ISIL is “gaming Twitter” in part through an app that supporters can download to their phones for free.

“They’re giving ISIS access to their Twitter account,” Berger said.

“ISIS then uses their Twitter account to broadcast its tweets,” he explained.  “So, a couple times a day, they’ll send out a burst of tweets.”

In other words, each tweet by ISIS is automatically re-tweeted by every app user, creating the illusion of large groups of people independently tweeting.

“By having real people sign up for this, it throws off the algorithms that Twitter would use to detect a spammer,” Berger said. “When you’re Twitter, and you have hundreds of thousands of people trying to abuse your service every day, you try and go for the low-hanging fruit. You go for bots. This is designed to be difficult to detect.”

Even if the app, called “Dawn of Glad Tidings,” is removed from app stores like Google Play tomorrow, Berger said ISIL has developed other techniques that are harder to combat.

For example, periodically a core group of ISIL backers will tweet using a hashtag either they developed, or one that’s already popular, such as #WorldCup.

That not only puts their tweets in front of more eyes, but by repeatedly tweeting it puts the hashtag on global trending lists, which in turn are picked up by large web aggregators which spreads the tweets even more.

“ISIS is all over social media,” Berger said. “But their Twitter practices are particularly effective.”

Keeping up online appearances

ISIL also has significant presence on other social networks, such as Instagram and Tumblr.
 
This image appears to show militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leading captured Iraqi soldiers after taking over a base near Tikrit, Iraq. The photo was posted on a militant website June 14, 2014.This image appears to show militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leading captured Iraqi soldiers after taking over a base near Tikrit, Iraq. The photo was posted on a militant website June 14, 2014.
x
This image appears to show militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leading captured Iraqi soldiers after taking over a base near Tikrit, Iraq. The photo was posted on a militant website June 14, 2014.
This image appears to show militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) leading captured Iraqi soldiers after taking over a base near Tikrit, Iraq. The photo was posted on a militant website June 14, 2014.
​In fact, some of the photos of what appears to be an Iraqi prisoner execution that created such a sensation earlier this week appeared on these sites.

The graphic nature of many of ISIL’s posts, it seems, also contributes to the group’s growing presence online.

Charles Lister, a Brookings Institute analyst, told NBC News in an email: “By underlining a sense of constant progress and success, ISIS can challenge the viability and value of rival movements."

Meaning that merely by creating a consistent appearance on social media of effectiveness and ruthlessness, a group of unclear size and force like ISIL can appear far more intimidating and successful than the actual facts on the ground may indicate.

Which is probably why the Iraqi government has moved aggressively to ISIL’s web outreach by cutting the Internet to certain parts of the nation, and blocking access to much of social media.

Around June 12, the Ministry of Communications ordered web access cut to Ninava, Kirkuk, Saladeldin and Anbar provinces.

Later Iraqi officials reversed course, re-establishing connections but moving to block access to social networks like YouTube, Viper, Facebook and others, as well as some circumvention tools used to evade such blocks.

Doug Madory, an analyst at the Internet intelligence firm Renesys, told VOA via email that neither strategy is particularly effective, and may bring with it unforeseen costs.

“By blocking Internet services, the government of Iraq risks antagonizing the Iraqi people at a time they would probably prefer to shore up support as they engage ISIL,” Madory said.

“I don't have insight into what ISIL is doing or adapting to the blockages,” he said.

“The reach of the government censorship varies by ISP. For example, Internet service in Kurdistan is less likely to experience the blocks because they rely less on the Iraqi national backbone and have independent Internet connections through Turkey.”
 
Appealing to the heart

Extremist groups, with their highly emotional appeals to people’s hopes and fears, may just be inherently stronger on social media than government’s appeals for support and stability, analysts say.

“I think the appeal of most of these types of groups around the world are very much emotional appeals, appeals to the heart,” said Mike Daniels, CEO of the cyber security firm Invincia and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“There are abhorrent scenes, but the rhetoric that goes with it draws in sympathizers. So in that sense, appealing to that small population, they do have an advantage over nation states.”

Daniels said not everything ISIL has done online appears to be a success, pointing to some of the more doctrinaire, hardline posts. But he said, clearly some of their online activities have yielded results, including, he says, likely finding new recruits to the cause.

“I am more of the belief that other groups and nation states have to have what I’ll call a global digital strategy,” Daniels told VOA. “And I think we’re far from figuring out the effective ways of doing that.”

You May Like

At International AIDS Conference One Goal, Many Paths

The 12,000 delegates attending 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne have vastly different visions about how to eradicate disease More

Disasters May Doom Malaysia’s Flag Carrier

Even before loss of two jets loaded with passengers on international flights, company had been operating in red for three years, accumulating deficit of $1.3 billion More

Afghan Presidential Vote Audit Continues Despite Glitches

Process has been marred by walkouts by representatives of two competing candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: meanbill from: USA
June 18, 2014 1:53 PM
The US, EU, and NATO countries and allied medias, are the one's winning the news media wars, by exaggerating and falsely reporting the news, (and), by not reporting that most of the towns and the cities that the (ISIL) and revolting Sunni Security Forces captured, were mostly majority Sunni populated, and they didn't lift one finger to stop the (ISIL) led attackers revolt, against the Shia led Iraq government...

MY OPINION? -- The Sunni majority populations in these cities and towns, are the only reason the (ISIL) and Sunni Security Forces captured them so easily. -- (AND NOW?) -- Maliki will lead his Iraqi Shia country to victory, (unless), he takes the bad advice from the US, EU, and NATO countries. --- VICTORY is guaranteed, as long as Maliki gives (no quarter) in this Iraq war, and destroys the enemy.... "The Art of War"

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Agei
X
Elizabeth Lee
July 20, 2014 2:36 AM
Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.
Video

Video Diplomatic Crisis Grows Over MH17 Plane Crash

The Malaysia Airlines crash in eastern Ukraine is drawing reaction from leaders around the world. With suspicions growing that a surface-to-air missile shot down the aircraft, there are increasing tensions in the international community over who is to blame. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Undocumented Immigrants Face Perilous Journey to US, No Guarantees

Every day, hundreds of undocumented immigrants from Central America attempt the arduous journey through Mexico and turn themselves over to U.S. border patrol -- with the hope that they will not be turned away. But the dangers they face along the way are many, and as Ramon Taylor reports from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, their fate rests on more than just the reception they get at the US border.
Video

Video Scientists Create Blackest Material Ever

Of all the black things in the universe only the infamous "black holes" are so black that not even a tiny amount of light can bounce back. But scientists have managed to create material almost as black, and it has enormous potential use. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Fog Collector Transforming Maasai Water Harvesting in Kenya

The Maasai people of Kenya are known for their cattle-herding, nomadic lifestyle. But it's an existence that depends on access to adequate water for their herds and flocks. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA, on a "fog collector."

AppleAndroid