The power and influence of social media has become increasingly apparent. The Internet population has now grown to the billions, connecting people from all around the world. Political movements are using social media to coordinate their efforts, which is why so many authoritarian governments limit access to it. These networking sites have become an important tool for democracy; for example, Twitter and Facebook played a central role in the Arab Spring. However, they can also be used as a tool to spread extremism – most notably by the terrorist group ISIS. President Obama states that these groups deliberately target and brainwash young, disillusioned Muslims: “The high-quality videos, the online magazines, the use of social media, terrorist Twitter accounts — it’s all designed to target today’s young people online, in cyberspace.” CIA Director John Brennan says that the interconnected technology of today “help groups similar to ISIS coordinate operations, attract new recruits, disseminate propaganda and inspire sympathizers across the globe . . . a lone extremist can go online and learn how to carry out an attack without ever leaving home.” Since this allows them to expand, carry out remote attacks, and stay organized, it has become harder to dissemble terrorist groups.
The Brookings Institute conducted an extensive report on the social media habits of ISIS. From Sept. through Dec. 2014, at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters. Not all were active at the same time.
Surprisingly, a small number of these accounts sent hundreds of tweets with their geo-location showing. Others had locations listed in their profiles — though this is less reliable. While most were from ISIS territories in the Middle East, some claimed to be operating in territories where ISIS is being opposed.
This report also found that the most popular languages of these Twitter accounts were English and Arabic. The accounts had an average of 1,000 followers. However, the accounts that were very active and had large followings were more likely to get suspended. There was a group of between 500 and 2,000 accounts that were extremely active. At least 1,000 of these ISIS supported accounts were suspended.
There is also a Twitter application called Fajr al-Bashaer, meaning Dawn of Good Tidings (@Fajr991) that sends news and updates on ISIS fighting in Syria and Iraq. A report shows that hundreds have subscribed. Once a user signs up, the app is allowed to access personal data and make posts to their accounts. The automated messages are spaced out to avoid detection by anti-spam software. This technique allows them to keep their messages in the trending hashtags and exaggerate their influence. By hijacking the trending hashtags, their message can reach anyone. They also have an online magazine that discusses what life under the Islamic State would be like.
The more violent content is likely to be found online, but that is not the majority. Elliot Zweig, deputy director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, has been tracking ISIS Internet activity. Zweig says, “You see messages of camaraderie. The focus of these are much more on ‘come and join us,’ it is not all difficulty and gore and suffering. It is ‘come and join us, join me and we’ll fight the good fight together.” They frame their message as relatable and inspirational, rather than depicting the violent jihadist image. It appears that this strategy is effective for recruiting young people residing in Western countries. Before social media, it was more difficult for Westerners to connect with terrorist groups. Now, it is estimated that 3,000 Westerners are fighting alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. These types of fighters are the biggest threats to Western countries because they can travel more freely and blend in easier. Shahed Amanullah, a former senior adviser at the State Department, says that the strategy is effective because “it is organic, it’s from the audience that it is going after . . . these young people understand youth frustration, they understand the fascination with violence, they understand that imagery and graphics that you see in Hollywood will attract these people.” Some have even reached celebrity status within the jihadist community.
It is unknown how many fighters have been recruited through social media. Frank Cilluffo, director of the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, states, “At the end of the day, they don’t need big numbers. They’re trying to appeal to small numbers, which unfortunately in the terrorism business is all it takes.” Even if they only manage to recruit a small percentage, creating global sympathy for their movement is still dangerous. If ISIS continues this social media strategy, no amount of military strength will stop them from spreading their ideology. As U.S. Secretary of Defense Martin Dempsey told members of Congress, victory against the Islamic State will not be achieved through the military. Instead, their ability to spread their ideas must be stopped.