EXTREMISMO VIRAL – When did Islamic State’s (IS) Online Media Strategy Begin to Take Shape?

At the end of April, VOX-Pol’s Coordinator, Prof. Maura Conway, exchanged a series of emails with Brazilian magazine Imprensa’s Gabriela Ferigato for a feature piece she was writing on the so-called ‘Islamic State’s’ online activity. The feature appeared recently and is available to read HERE for Portuguese speakers. A lightly edited version of the original English-language email ‘interview’ is this week’s Blog post.

Strictly speaking, IS’ online media strategy began to publicly take shape in Summer 2014 at around the same time as their announcement of their ‘re-establishment’ of their so-called ‘caliphate.’ If one takes the view that IS is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq however, then their online activity may be dated to at least April 2004 when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi posted online a thirty-minute audio recording explaining who he was, why he was fighting, and details of the attacks for which he and his group were responsible. He followed that up with the Berg beheading video in May 2004.

On which online platform does IS have the greatest presence? Where do they reach the widest audience?

IS’s Twitter activity gets the most attention, but they’re active across a diverse range of online platforms in addition to the latter, so other major social media platforms, like Facebook and YouTube, but also lower profile and more regionally specific platforms, such as Ask, Flickr, Instagram, SoundCloud, Tumblr, VKontakte, and others.

A host of other more obscure file, text, and video upload sites, like JustPaste.It, are also crucial nodes, as are a number of dedicated online discussion forums. Since September 2015, when it launched a ‘channels’ function, Telegram use by jihadis has really taken off too.

What are the aesthetic qualities of their content? What are the inspirations?

IS’ online content is being produced by relatively young people—most are probably in their twenties—who are familiar with pop culture, so it’s clear enough that some of their videos are inspired by movie techniques; the aerial drone footage used in a number of videos, for example, or the lettering and voice overs used in the ‘trailers’ for other productions.

The Cantlie videos, on the other hand, have more of a ‘news’ quality. The British hostage and journalist John Cantlie is shown ‘reporting’ from various locales in Iraq and Syria as if he were reporting for the BBC. Other footage, including beheadings, whether intentionally or unintentionally, has a reality TV aesthetic.

Has technology boosted their messages around the world?

IS’s message has definitely reached much higher numbers of people than it would have in the pre-Internet era. In addition, the emergence of Web 2.0, and social media in particular, means that more people have been reached by IS than their predecessors who had to rely on websites and online jihadi forums.  At its simplest, the more people that get exposed to IS content the higher the number of people likely to be influenced in some way by that content.

It’s just much easier to find jihadi online content today than it was even 5 years ago; one no longer needs a high level of Internet literacy or Arabic language skills, for example. In fact, on many social media platforms once you locate a profile, channel, or other content that interests you, you’ll be ‘recommended’ similar and so on; these recommendations work in the same way for IS and other extremist-related content as for cat videos.

Have any other terrorist organisations used the media like IS have?

It’s important to point out that IS are not the first violent extremists or terrorists to use the Internet; far from it, in fact. Neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other extreme right groups were some of the first people to do politics ‘online,’ using Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), in the early- to mid-1980s. Most major terrorist groups established an online presence between the mid-1990s and, say, 2000.

So what explains IS’s ‘success’?

This is often treated in the press as almost magical; like IS have some secret ingredient unavailable to the rest of us. For me it’s down to a number of factors that have less to do with IS and more to do with the structures of the Internet. Basically, IS have capitalised on the affordances of Web 2.0, especially the quick and easy upload and circulation of still images and video.

IS have invested people, time, and money in the fast production of large amounts of visuals, including recently a whole series of infographics. Images, whether still or moving, are at the core of the contemporary Internet. But most only have a short shelf life, so a steady stream has to be supplied. And they have to have certain features that encourage Internet users to circulate them. Newsworthiness is such a feature; shock value also works very well. IS knows this and capitalises upon it.

How do governments fight against this? How do IS manage to remain “immune” to security agencies?

IS’ online activity is definitely not immune to security agencies. IS’ online fans have been prosecuted in numerous countries worldwide for their online support activity. A well-known case is, for example, the Indian IT worker, Mehdi Mansour Biswas, who was well known online before his arrest as ‘Shami Witness.’ (‘Sham(i)’ is ‘Syria’ in Arabic). The US has also directly targeted prominent online jihadi figures, including as far back as 2011 AQAP’s Anwar al-Awlaki whom they killed in a drone strike. More recently it’s been reported that US military hackers are breaking into the computers/accounts of IS fighters and implanting intel gathering and other malicious software.

How do you measure the actions of government agencies in combating IS online? Are their actions effective?

It’s very difficult to measure the actions of government agencies in combating IS online for a number of reasons. Much of this activity may, unsurprisingly, be assumed to be covert, for example.

Also, some government activity that’s been in the public domain has been widely criticized; see, for example, the US government’s ‘Think Again, Turn Away’ online campaign, which has since been discontinued, or the French government’s http://www.stop-djihadisme.gouv.fr website.

Alternative measures include legislation outlawing extremist content and the setting-up of law enforcement entities specifically tasked in this area. The UK police established their Counterterrorism Internet Referral Unit (CTIRU) in 2010 and Europol established a similar unit in summer 2015.

Has it been effective? Campaigns like ‘Think Again’ seem mostly to have provided fodder for media ‘exposés.’ Content takedown initiatives outside of a public law framework have also been criticised; but if the idea is that more exposure to IS content leads to more followers for IS—which isn’t uncontroversial—then making IS content harder to access may have a certain level of effectiveness.

In terms of producing and circulating so-called ‘online counter-narratives,’ governments are much more constrained than IS, not in terms of money perhaps, but in terms of what they can say/show. They’re also much less agile; it takes inordinate amounts of time for most governments to decide action needs to be taken and then more time to actually get content out there. The Internet doesn’t wait; to be successful online, one must be fast.

According to the researcher Charlie Winter, it “doesn’t matter if the following coverage on them is negative—say, criticizing the brutality of the group or questioning their religious legitimacy. For the Islamic State, provided it is in accordance with those responsible for their propaganda and transmits the supposed strength and ubiquity of the group, any coverage is good coverage. In this sense, terrorism of the Islamic State does not end when the bomb is detonated. Instead, it continues for hours, days and weeks, fed by the media.”

Do you agree with this statement? In your opinion, should the press ignore the advertising material produced by IS?

I agree with Charlie Winter that for IS ‘all publicity is good publicity’ and the mass media has a hand in this. This isn’t new, of course, the so-called ‘symbiotic’ relationship between terrorism and media has been remarked upon in scholarship on this issue since at least the late 1960s, but probably even prior.

I don’t think, of course, that this means that the media should ignore IS activity, but I think some outlets could certainly be more careful about how they report on IS. Some UK newspapers, for example, reported widely, repeatedly, and luridly on not just the videoed killings of Westerners, especially UK nationals, but also on the day-to-day online activity of British so-called ‘foreign fighters’ and ‘jihadi brides.’ Reporting on these guys and girls favourite Robin Williams’ movies, preferred British chocolate bars, photos of their dinners and desserts, etc. seems to me to go way beyond what’s necessary and responsible. In fact, a section of the British press was responsible for popularising the term “five star jihad,” in effect glamourising the Syria conflict.

Gabriela Ferigato is a journalist and sub-editor with Brazil’s Imprensa magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @gabiferagato.

Maura Conway is Professor of International Security in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University and the Coordinator of VOX-Pol. Follow her on Twitter at @galwaygrrl.

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