Correction: An earlier version of this story described Mike Smith as a "self-described former member of Anonymous." Mike Smith has never been a member of Anonymous.
Last month’s terror attacks in Paris spurred Western political leaders to begin crafting a comprehensive strategy for defeating the Islamic State militant group on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
But they also reminded many observers that more needs to be done to attack the Islamic State (IS) group where it has a sizable foothold: online.
The U.S. State Department and non-governmental agencies have been working hard to counter pro-IS narratives or incitements to violence frequently found on social media. But numerous analysts tell VOA those efforts have only produced marginal effects, while IS social media strategies have grown more sophisticated.
Even the shadowy hacker collective known as Anonymous has entered the fray, publicly declaring “war” on IS and vowing to hound the group any place it exists on the web. But these efforts appear to have generated more headlines than actual results.
Despite this, a consensus may be developing on how to take the online battle to IS.
Emotion equals virality
“It’s been clear for quite a while now that IS is extremely organized on social media, and they’re extremely aggressive about how they use it,” says J.M. Berger, co-author of "ISIS: The State of Terror" and non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “They have some people who have some pretty relevant experience that have worked in these areas, and they have some people very skilled at putting out propaganda content.”
Berger says IS employs several social media strategies simultaneously, each targeting a specific audience and crafted to create a specific reaction.
“They became notorious for extremely violent videos, but they also put out a tremendous amount of content of what they say is ordinary life in their caliphate,” Berger told VOA. “It’s obviously heavily edited and manipulated, but they put out pictures of civic life, people taking out their trash, managing traffic, just doing the things a state would do. That’s part of their recruiting pitch.”
Complicating matters, IS uses thousands of social media accounts designed in part to spur viral sharing. While crafting viral content can be difficult, Wharton School scholar Katherine Milkman says it’s clearly not impossible.
An associate professor who studies decision-making and social media virality, Milkman's research suggests emotional reaction is key to online success.
“Emotions that make your heart race are exactly the kind that produce sharing,” she said. “So when you get excited, whether you’re angry or filled with awe, if your heart’s racing, you’re more likely to hit 'share' or ‘retweet’ or email the article.”
The fact that a lot of IS social media efforts go viral, she says, is completely in line with her research findings. Videos showing the brutal slaying of hostages or tweets praising terrorists for killing dozens in Beirut or hundreds in Nigeria, are specifically designed to fill people with anger ... which she says is a prime motivator for people to share online content.
“Hot-button topics are going to take off,” she told VOA. “It may be a little disappointing, but it’s not surprising.”
Anonymous enters fight
Since launching its online “war” against IS a few weeks ago, Anonymous has had some successes. One member of the group, who requested to remain unidentified, told VOA “at least 5,000” IS-linked accounts on social media platforms like Twitter have been taken down, and dozens of websites knocked offline by denial of service attacks.
The member also told VOA of an Anonymous-planned “Day of Rage” December 11, when Anonymous will encourage people online to “troll and mock” IS, in part, by reposting gruesome images of IS soldiers killed in action.
Such tactics, Milkman says, might go viral simply because of the emotions they produce. But there are others who question the effectiveness of such harassment, and the larger strategy of trying to erase IS from the web.
Mike Smith is co-founder of the defense consultancy group Kronos Advisory. These days, he volunteers as a bridge between U.S. government agencies and “Ghost Security Group” (GSG), unidentified “cyber-operatives” who gather intelligence on ISIS online activities.
“Through the Internet, the Islamic State is engaging in one of the most — if not the most — effective global influence operation of any terrorist group in history,” he said. “It’s understandable you would want to remove a key component of their ability to do that: their online presence.”
But he also says it’s precisely those visible online accounts and activities that continue to produce a wealth of critical intelligence that would be otherwise unattainable.
“GSG operatives have identified information that has highlighted specific information about cell structures, as well as attack plots in support of the Islamic State’s agenda writ large,” Smith said.
So while it helps to limit online spaces IS uses to recruit and propagandize, Smith says Anonymous’ looser approach at take-downs may actually interfere with important, ongoing counterterrorism investigations.
“When you’re using the Internet as a tool for global operations, there are inherent vulnerabilities and risks that come with that,” Smith told VOA. “They range from people identifying locations of members of the Islamic State to the risk that you as an IS supporter may end up engaging with someone who’s gathering information about you and your plans. There’s inherent risk.”
What can be done?
Countering IS messaging, and that of the larger global jihadist movement, may in time prove to be a multi-generational task.
But all the analysts VOA spoke with agreed more could be done. For Smith, the most effective step would be to roll back IS territory, cutting at IS’ key narrative that it is a so-called caliphate.
“If it doesn’t have territory, if it cannot prove to the global jihad movement writ large that it is managing a caliphate, then you’ve undermined one of the most important claims of that group," he said. "That will do wonders in terms of limiting threats this group can pose.”
Milkman says getting people fired up online will help spread counter-IS messages, but that doesn’t just mean making people angry.
“It should also be about positive messages; maybe focusing on positive things that are happening in the world or gains against those who are doing harm to others," she said.
Berger points out the U.S. government has to do more.
“The U.S. government needs to get online in a bigger way, and volume counts for a lot of social media. Just volume, not even counting the content,” he said.
“The U.S. government has an obligation to put its information out there," he added. "It produces reams and reams of content every day that can be out there, that can be highlighted and promoted. Very basic, uncontroversial messaging about what America stands for."