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.
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.”

Doug Bernard

dbjohnson+voanews.com

Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

You May Like

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Battle With Islamic State Militants Carries Domestic Risks

Despite Western concerns that IS militants are preparing a Jordanian offensive, analysts call the kingdom's solid intel a strong deterrent More

Asian-Americans Assume Office in Record Numbers

Steadily deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu 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.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s Century-Old House Falling Apart

One of the most fascinating people in U.S. history was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the American Indian tribe, the Comanche. He was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Parker was a fierce warrior until 1875 when he led his people to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and took on a new, peaceful life. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Cache, Oklahoma, Quanah’s image remains strong among his people, but part of his heritage is in danger of disappearing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid