How ISIS Is Taking War to Social Media
Popular Science|March - April 2016

ISIS goes viral - and the world fights back.

Emerson Brooking & P.W. Singer

When the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) descended on the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, they didn’t just march into town—they simultaneously launched a Twitter hashtag campaign, #AllEyesonISIS. It was blitzkrieg with a digital-marketing strategy.

Within hours, images of ISIS barbarity spread throughout the Arab world, sowing fear among Mosul’s residents and its defenders. The social-media campaign gave an air of inevitability to the looming seizure of the city, and to the atrocities that would follow. Despite the fact that they outnumbered the attacking ISIS forces by 15-to-1, the Iraqi army units defending Mosul disintegrated and fled. A militia of roughly 1,500 ISIS fighters captured a city of some 1.5 million people.

From its start, social media has been integral to ISIS’s rise. It allows the group to raise its prestige among terror organizations, and to overtake older jihadist competitors like al-Qaeda. It serves to coordinate troops and win battles. And it allows the group to administer territory it controls.

Now ISIS is using social media to expand its war far beyond its borders. What started with the choreographed execution video of journalist James Foley,blasted across the Web through an army of dummy Twitter accounts, has now morphed into something more devious and distributed. Rather than calling followers to the front lines, ISIS’s social-media strategy cultivates them at home in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Asia. And it can use those followers to devastating effect, whether sending gun men storming into the Bataclan theater in Paris last year or inspiring an American citizen and is wife to massacre 14 co-workers at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California.In the idealistic and early days of the Internet, many Silicon Valley pioneers thought that in creating a more connected world, they might also create a more peaceful one.The reality is more complicated. Global connectivity has brought many new opportunities, undoubtedly, but it has also bred a new generation of threats. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable that a militant in Syria might become pen pals with a lonely teenager in small-town America. These sorts of interactions now keep those at the FBI, NSA, and local law-enforcement agencies awake long into the night.

Yet in war, as in nature, every action has an opposite reaction. Over the past two years, many new forces have marshaled to engage ISIS in this war of social media. The United States has launched a constellation of social-media accounts to battle ISIS misinformation. U.S. spies map ISIS networks through what they reveal of themselves online (one U.S. air strike was even guided by an oversharing jihadist). Outside government, social-media companies have increasingly revised their own systems and terms of service in an effort to mop up terrorist accounts before they spread, as with Twitter’s recent ban of all “indirect threats of violence.” Hackers and independent activists also play an increasingly important role. Many associated with the hacking collective Anonymous, for instance, have taken to patrolling the darker places of the Internet, waging their own private fight to take down ISIS content wherever they find it. Some of them even named a single day, December 11, ISIS Trolling Day, an event dedicated just to making fun of the group.

So far, there is only one certainty in this fight. What ISIS has discovered—this very weird, effective new way of war—is not a novelty or a one-time thing. ISIS may have been the first to wield this potent mix of social media, terror, and war, but it will not be the last.

How ISIS Uses Social Media as a Weapon

Rather than a centralized master plan with a defined leadership,the ISIS social-media campaign is a kaleidoscope of distributed efforts. The group was originally built around seasoned veterans of the Iraqi insurgency, who were then joined by a new generation of millennial recruits. A November study by the New America Foundation found that the average age of Westerners who travel to join ISIS is 24—they’ve grown up with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Working together, these battle-hardened jihadists and social-media-savvy recruits have developed a loose framework that turns social media into a potent weapon of war.



Using a captured Western television journalist, ISIS staged a series of “investigative” reports. Geared toward potential Western recruits, the videos are in English and have tried to portray the attractiveness of life in the Islamic State.


Many social-media accounts exist to highlight the lighter side of life in ISIS, trying to build its online image. The most bizarre might be “Cats of Jihad,” which gave ISIS fighters a chance to pose their cats with guns on Instagram.


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