One of the contributing factors in the forward momentum of the Islamic State (IS) [formerly and variously the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq & al-Sham; and the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL)] is the rapid and regimented dissemination of the organization’s message.
contrast to the occasionally disorganized and single-language social
messages of other extremist groups, IS's strategic use of social
media is filled with attempts to intimidate and demoralize as well as
recruit both local and Western audiences. Depending on the intended
objective or the target audience the IS message and the methods adopt
a different “tone of voice” and set of
a reported 2500 Western fighters (Grose, 2014), IS’s efforts would
appear to be a success, but how influential was the use of social
media and what are they doing differently? Additionally, are “boots
on the ground” the only indicator of success. We do not believe so.
A more threatening and undermining effect of this strategy is the
construction of a sleeper network and the manipulation of
international cells whom IS never intend to draw to the actual
solely focus on the immediate effect in terms of IS fighting numbers
in the field and to encourage this social media activity so that
Western intelligence agencies can locate activists or anticipate operations in the short term is one dimensional and ignores the more
worrying mid to long term effects and possible strategic intentions
Corporate Services is conducting a long range study, to determine the
success of these methods on all levels while considering established
notions about social media, persuasion, and the psychology of
as a Corporation - Employing savvy social media use to build a
is a more sophisticated and organized extremist organization than
most identified in the past, rising from the ashes of Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its carefully planned
four-part operation to target separate processes and terrorize select
groups of individuals involved in the rebuilding of Iraq (Kirdar,
should come as no surprise, then, that their media wing operates as a
manipulative, top-tier, social media savvy corporation with carefully
prepared materials in a variety of languages, designed to appeal to
myriad audiences. IS uses the same Twitter strategies adopted by key
players in social media customer service, including the careful use
of hash-tags, tweeting to celebrities, and mobilizing their Twitter
followers with calls to action.
findings of Burson-Marsteller’s first Global Twitter Influence
Study (2014) show individuals who follow large corporations are
predominantly young, male, Western, and have a social pull 3,274
times stronger than their peers – a powerful audience of potential
recruits that IS has designed a very careful social media strategy in
order to reach. IS, as a corporation with a carefully deployed social
media strategy, uses two main tools: YouTube and Twitter.
Scarcity, and Recruitment
Corporate Services have received exclusive YouTube content from
sources in the Middle East showing a more complex and sophisticated
plan, utilizing original creative content to target desired audience
segments in a manner more reminiscent of an experienced public
relations firm than a terrorist organization.
questioning the possible success of these videos as recruitment
tools, we first analyzed the content of these videos, as professional
production values as well as the use of English may make them more
dangerous than previous materials when used for Western recruitment.
Second, we considered these videos using the psychological and
rhetorical concepts of scarcity, and the role these concepts play in
the effectiveness of the clips on their intended audience.
Corporate Services received seven links to YouTube videos, between
mid-June and mid-July 2014, which are of value to security and risk
management providers as they illustrate that IS, in our view, is
adopting media tactics heretofore unseen from Middle Eastern
videos feature elements similar to those one might expect to see in a
coordinated advertising campaign or a large-scale non-profit drive.
All videos feature target audience native speakers delivering the IS
message in a calm, rational manner, at visual and vocal odds with the
societally constructed idea of a raging extremist. All videos feature
song's with sophisticated arrangements that serve as a backdrop for
carefully constructed lyrics brimming with anti-Western / anti-Jewish
sentiment. The professionally created content of these videos is
dangerous, increasing targeted Westerners’ identification with the
group and giving it a similar footing with other sources in the
unique aspect of these videos, when considered in conjunction with
their high production values, became clear when our analysts noted
the viewer numbers of each clip. Unlike other YouTube videos uploaded
by IS associated accounts and distributed to the public at large via
mass Twitter links and other methods, these videos had low hit
low YouTube “hit” count and shoddy production values are clear
indications of propaganda and easily dismissed as traditional
extremism. However, a low number of viewers combined with
professional production speak and audience segment targeting makes
the “chosen” viewers more susceptible due to the social
psychology concept of scarcity. A study by Worchel, Lee and Adewole
(1975) illustrated that individuals value an object more highly if it
appears to be more rare. Similarly, information that is harder to obtain is viewed as more trustworthy. Two thousand years earlier, Aristotle was already covering the subject in his “Rhetoric,” stating,
“Further, what is rare is a greater good than what is plentiful,”
and additionally, “… Besides, what comes only as long intervals
has the value of rarity.”
a society where being unique has become a valuable commodity,
particularly during key developmental phases for an individual’s
personality, it should come as no surprise that these “rare” IS
videos have the capability of being dangerous recruitment tools. The
videos are viewable to all YouTube users while they are “live”.
However, the invitations to view this content were privately sent to
multiple TMG Corporate Services dummy Facebook, Google+ and YouTube
accounts. These accounts had deliberately demonstrated a demographic
and behavior pattern that would make their “owners” interesting
recruitment targets for IS.
a two week period, of twenty highly active pro-Islam / pro-Jihad
accounts, seventeen were privately “invited” to add temporary IS
accounts to their profiles or circles and in the process view the
seemingly exclusive content. The IS accounts issuing the invites
variously stayed active for between two and five days after receipt
of the invitation and in the intervening periods some links to
external content were withdrawn or the target content source deleted
or moved. The objective in this behavior would appear to be to
manifest feelings of exclusivity and insider knowledge in the target
and may engender increased enthusiasm in a vulnerable or
disenfranchised individual, creating the illusion that they may be of
particular worth to IS.
Propaganda, and Intimidation
IS has found a niche on YouTube for recruitment and testing the
usefulness of audience targeting, then the organization’s tactics
when using Twitter should be considered its anti-thesis. IS appears
to be using Twitter as a platform for large-scale information
dissemination, sharing images and a message of intimidation with
local Middle Eastern and Western sources. When deliberating on
whether IS’s Twitter strategy has been successful, there are three
main points to consider when analyzing the intersection of IS,
Twitter, and success.
learning how to become ingrained in the culture of Twitter is
considered success, then IS is making steady progress. From inserting
themselves into a World Cup hash-tag with a violent image, which
helped IS accounts acquire thousands of unintentional views, to
co-opting a sign held by U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and
subverting her message, the social media strategists at IS understand
how to attach themselves to successful social media campaigns to
garner more attention (Nordland, 2014). However, this method does not
appear to have furthered any of IS’s goals, with the exception of
press coverage. While this should not be ignored, it is unlikely to
be the organization’s only desire for such a convenient, global
IS’s purpose in using Twitter is not to recruit but to threaten, in
a general and non-targeted manner, then results should be considered
mixed. There is no doubt that their threatening messages on local
accounts for specific Middle Eastern areas may have negative effects
on the psychological well-being of the local populace, especially
when these account feature images of violence. It is likely that such
messages, spread by loudspeaker and on Twitter, led to Christians
fleeing Mosul on July 19th 2014 (Swarts, 2014). However, even when
accompanied with images of a most violent nature, threats have only
served to rouse Western audiences and provide them with a cause to
unite against IS more cohesively (BBC News, 2014).
if the purpose of IS’s Twitter strategy is to exercise control over
the platform, it should perhaps be considered a resounding failure.
IS’s accounts stay open and active only at the behest of the US
intelligence community (Daileda & Franceschi-Bicchierai, 2014),
and Twitter itself can shut them down at any time.
Course of Action
analysis considers IS’s basic use of two social media tools through
June/July 2014. When al-Qaeda used online tools for recruitment, a
thorough tactical analysis with in-depth assessments about the
organization’s success was not possible until almost a decade after
recruitment began (Gerwehr & Daly, 2005).
is likely that in-depth research about IS’s success or failure to
use social media may take a comparable amount of time. However, since
IS has succeeded in recruiting more Westerners than any other group
to date, it is imperative to begin the process now.
recommend analysis of accounts which are providing the highest level
of audience segment targeting toward Western audiences, including
analyzing names chosen for such accounts and their use of idioms and
slogans, with particular attention to evidence of positive Western
response and IS’s ability to capitalize on success, to predict
threats and develop countermeasures. Other avenues for analysis are
currently being developed and results and findings will take the form
of further posts on our various publishing platforms.
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