WASHINGTON - 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.
?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.
?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.”