News / Science & Technology

Uses and Abuses of Social Media in Conflict Zones

Screen grab from the ISIL produced video "Let's Go To Jihad."
Screen grab from the ISIL produced video "Let's Go To Jihad."

It can be difficult to remember a time when social networks like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook weren’t always with us, humming along in the background and linking us to the rest of the world. But in fact they’re not even a decade old, and mobile devices like smartphones – where they increasingly live – are  even newer than that.

Yet in a short span of time, insurgent groups, political organizations and governments have all rapidly adopted social media platforms to press their case, confuse their opponents, seize world attention and gain advantage over their adversaries.

At present in conflicts from Iraq to Ukraine, from skirmishes in the South China Sea to civilian protests in Venezuela, social media has become a key tool for leveraging money, recruits, opinion and potentially, even victory.

Each new conflict is providing new learning experiences about what’s possible, and what works best. And like any tool, social media have all sorts of positive and negative uses. That said, several analysts VOA recently spoke with suggest that, at least at present, the extremists seem to have the upper hand in wielding their new-found digital power.

“More Sophisticated Than Any Group Before”

The recent images from Iraq have become as familiar as they are unsettling.

From the start of their effort to seize territory in Syria and Iraq by force, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has also waged a heated social media campaign that surprised many analysts for its sophistication and effectiveness.

Earlier this year, as militant fighters swept through Western Iraq, ISIL’s social media updates reflected the brutality of the conflict. With tweets, bloody photos on Instagram and graphic videos posted on various sites, ISIL portrayed itself as an unsparing foe intent on shooting, decapitating and otherwise executing as many opponents as possible.

Which makes ISIL’s most recent videos all the more surprising.

In one, a smiling shopkeeper, his store filled with produce and bustling with customers, happily tells us how smoothly everything is going. In another, a giggling group of children crowd around ISIL fighters handing out cotton candy and ice cream, bouncing the children on their shoulders. In yet others, temporarily removed from the web, ISIL fighters cannonball into a river and engage in a pickup snowball fight.

“The message is ‘Look how evil we are! We’re just having a snowball fight, come on down and join the party!’” says Cori Dauber, professor of communications studies at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

“I’ve been looking at their longer videos,” she told VOA. “I would say that they are, by an order of magnitude, more sophisticated than any group that has come before.”

Dauber studies the use of images by extremist groups in propaganda, and recently authored the book “YouTube Wars.” Appearing on a recent taping of VOA’s “Encounter” program, she said that terrorists have always been among the first adopters of new technologies.

“And that’s been true of digital technologies as well,” she said. “YouTube, Twitter, Instagram; they are incredibly creative in their use of those technologies and they use them to recruit, to fundraise, to spread their message.”

A review of some of the videos released by Al Hayat Media Center, ISIL’s production service, underscore Dauber’s point. This one, uploaded in June, features broadcast quality graphics, highly stylized editing and production, and HD imagery set to inflammatory recruitment rhetoric. But just as importantly, there’s also an absence of the extreme imagery ISIL was previously known for, perhaps signaling a shift away from blood and toward a subtler message.

One possible reason: now that ISIL has self-stylized itself into simply “the Islamic State”, they need to begin acting like those governments it has been fighting.

“What’s interesting about ISIL is that you can’t take things off the Internet,” says Andrew Borene, an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson LLP and a former Marine Corps intelligence officer. “If they do at some point hope to achieve any modicum of recognition as a state in the society of countries, these videos are going to count against them. And it gets very difficult to make a transition under the old model from terrorist as a political actor to an organized state.”

Borene agrees, as have other analysts who spoke with VOA recently, that ISIL’s social media outreach has far outstripped not only that of competing jihadist groups, but of many of the governments and institutions in the region.

But, he says, social media isn’t all pluses for insurgents. “It puts them forward. It puts their faces on the Internet for identification by operatives in the future. It puts their locations for training grounds on the Internet. So there are upsides and downsides to increased activity by these groups.”

Playing to the Head and the Heart

ISIL’s apparent victories, so far at least, on the Twitter battlefields may be notable for their advanced strategies, but other less-skilled insurgent groups have seen a similar tactical edge over governments before. Separatists in Ukraine skillfully outmaneuvered Ukrainian nationalists and even the government, Turkish opponents to Prime Minister Erdogan continue to bedevil that government, and Venezuelan authorities have so far not been able to silence those organizing against the government of Nicolás Maduro.

Borene and Dauber both say that insurgents may have a built-in advantage when it comes to using social media, as so many of the most effective messages are those that appeal to the heart and the gut, rather than the head.

“It’s not that states don’t care about emotions”, says Dauber. It’s just that they have very different standards to adhere to than an insurgent group that can do or say just about anything, and often do.

Take, for example, the most recent example of ISIL rebels taking sledgehammers to the Tomb of Jonah in Mosul, then posting the video online. “A state simply would not do that,” says Dauber. “So it’s not that states don’t appeal emotion, but they wouldn’t appeal to emotion in a way that clearly puts them in violation of various national conventions, codes or cultural norms.”

Governments may be “a step behind” insurgent groups, as Borene notes, but that doesn’t mean they and their political and social counterparts are powerless.

“Non-traditional actors are the ones that will embrace the emerging technologies most rapidly,” he says. “But moving forward I think you’re going to see public safety planners and defense professionals all around the world using this to plan ahead, to make integrated strategic communications that include social and traditional media outlets.”

While the social media landscape may currently tilt toward those without power protesting against those who have it, Dauber says a technology is evolving so rapidly that there’s no telling what it will look like, even in the near future.

“We have not yet quite figured it out, but this stuff is very, very new, and we’ve just got to be fast and smart in our use of these technologies,” says Dauber. “We’ve got to figure out ways to counter message and I think part of that is that we’ve got to make it a priority.”

Our complete conversation with Cori Dauber and Andrew Borene can be heard this weekend on “Encounter” on VOA’s English frequencies, or online at

Doug Bernard

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.

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Comment Sorting
by: Not Again from: Canada
July 11, 2014 7:40 AM
Interesting article; it continues to surprise that these terrorist organizations are allowed to use the internet/digital pathways. Western taxpayers spend billions a year to support an ever expanding bureaucracy, with an expertise in the digital world to prevent criminals from using the digital space for their crimes. The so called war on terror is just big talk, when even this most basic of issues has not been dealt with = preventing terror organizations from using the internet or any other digital media/space/pathways.

The digital media/space/pathways..... are used, according to experts, for recruiting/polarizing/spreading a message of violence and hate/etc; recruited global jihadis are at the core of these terror organizations; but apparently no attempt is made to continuously shut down these sites, as they materialize. These sites, in part, provide the critical mass for these terror organizations to function and become sustainable, therefore they should be disrupted, continuously as they appear.
In Response

by: Doug Bernard
July 11, 2014 11:27 AM
Not Again - There's several challenges at work here I think. First, because of the decentralized nature of the web, it's very difficult to completely choke off a determined group. You can block websites of course, but those can be circumvented. Facebook and Twitter can cancel accounts, but it's very easy for new ones to pop up, making for a frustrating "Whack-a-Mole" endeavor.

Lastly, there's a strong bias in the web toward free expression. Even if some blocks are possible, many ask whether it's right in the long run.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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