Twitter states that their mission is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers” (Twitter). A powerful a statement coming from one of the largest social media websites in the world, and as a platform of 300 million users that can collectively respond to any disruption in the world, it’s the end of that statement that is slowly becoming a burden too heavy to carry by the social media titan. Among plunging stock prices and trouble finding substantial advertisers (Statt), Twitter is, and has been, facing a much more sinister threat to its existence as the essential social platform “without barriers”. A threat that is the culmination of western philosophy and eastern indoctrination techniques that are now being spread across the globe on the platform. Its name is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its tool is Twitter.
In the last 10 years, Twitter has become a platform of propaganda and recruitment that is advancing the way terrorism connects to the world by creating a digital podium that can be used to challenge religion and government across the planet. Evolving rapidly from the communication methods terrorism used in the past, and, arguably, surpassing many American marketing strategies, ISIS has turned to Twitter to promote extremism, incite violence, and spread the jihadist message. And in the very same way that American’s react emotionally to viral content seen anywhere on the web, this message is being absorbed and reverberated through the community at a startling pace. In order to halt the progress of ISIS’s massive, online propaganda machine, Twitter needs to be examined as to why it has become the best platform for spreading information, and what specific communication techniques are being employed by ISIS.
Organized terrorism faces a unique problem when it comes to communications. Leaders at the top need to flow orders down to the bottom, recruitment efforts need to be emphasized in the correct manner, and the group needs to instill fear into any opposition. (Pekgozlu, Ozdemir, & Ercikt) With at least 200,000 pro-ISIS tweets a day (“Terror Threat Snapshot”), all of this needs to be done nowadays without leaving any sort of digital footprint. At least not in any tangible way that can lead directly back to leadership.
Not even a decade ago, videos released from extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, were nothing more than a routine, talking head in a cold cave on the other side of the planet. The editing was crude, color tones were bland, and the only message received by the American people were that of complete savages living as such (Pekgozlu, Ozdemir, & Ercikt). To many Americans, this was hardly a threat to their way of life. Al-Qaeda recruitment efforts were very much different than the system ISIS uses today. The boundary of their endeavors were fairly restricted to the Middle East, and surrounding areas. As the group would enter towns and villages, Al-Qaeda would build a support network to help recruit people for their cause. In doing so, the group would offer financial help to those eager to receive it, as well as offer a solution to more social situations. Those people would then be used to spread the message further with each acting a a single node to a large network of people. However, that was the extent of any outreach conducted by the group themselves. Communities around the world helped spread the message without intent, mostly the mainstream media. In order to draft suicide bombers, Al-Qaeda preyed on weak individuals with drug addictions and histories of mental illness. (Ibrahim)
Al-Qaeda was developed with a cellular structure. Members of the cell are not aware of leadership and can only communicate with other members of the cell. These cells are spread out through the region. In order to operate this kind of organization, communication is crucial. However, just like their public communications, Al-Qaeda’s private means of communications were just as primitive. If an order needed to be given, a human courier was used most often. In some cases, they would risk using private chat rooms, however that was rarely the case as the groups would not often take the risk. (Hamilton)
Fast forward ten years and Al-Qaeda has been eliminated, the Internet has developed to a capacity hardly restrained by regulations, and ISIS is now the most prominent terror threat in the world. Has Twitter been the catalyst to foster such radical change, to position ISIS atop the pedestal it currently sits? The most notable case to demonstrate this massive change is illustrated with the #AllEyesOnISIS campaign. With a single hashtag, ISIS was able to publicly announce, at a global level, the assault on Northern Iraq and the soon after capture of Mosul. First seen on July 19th, #AllEyesOnISIS storm started surging on June 19th, 2014 (Shiraz $ Carter). Started as a retaliation to President Barack Obama’s announcement of air strikes in the area, #AllEyesOnISIS quickly captured the attention of the users on Twitter, specifically within the Muslim community. Support started pouring in from all over the world. A photo with a user holding note professing support for ISIS with the Roman Coliseum standing in the background is tweeted at 3:22am June 20th. “We support the Mujahideen of the Islamic State” reads another photo tweeted from Australia a few hours following. Another tweet pictures a plane window looking over an Asian mountain range with another message encouraging the efforts of ISIS. In time, thousands of people, and their collective voice, proudly proclaimed their support for ISIS, and at that moment, terror learned of the strength that Twitter wields. (De Graaf)
Since #AllEyesOnISIS, ISIS has found ways to take advantage of Twitter and manufacture it into the instrument of propaganda that it is today. The most evident example is the group’s development of videos. As mentioned earlier, videos that were released in the past had nothing more than a person in a cave issuing a threat to the masses, along with an inherent dependence on the mainstream media to amplify the message. Today, they develop highly targeted videos, all with a purpose and a target audience, that can be instantly spread by that very same audience. Furthermore, the immense amount of effort that goes into making these videos rivals that of a Hollywood movie. Situations are scripted so that ISIS victories can become glorified, exaggerating the sense of achievement in the region. In some cases, special effects are added in post-production, along with grandiose music, to heighten the emotional connection to the video. The video is then released through a network of Twitter accounts while the message is retweeted from continent to continent, invading the minds of anyone willing to surrender. (Berger & Morgan)
To further illustrate ISIS’s sophisticated use of video, the deployment technique itself can be investigated further. In the age of the Internet, the shorter the video, the better. This is especially the case with Twitter, a platform that boasts itself on a cavalier “less is more” attitude. ISIS understands this. Videos are rarely over five minutes long, with the majority falling within the one-minute range. This is quite the distance from the documentary propaganda videos created by Al-Qaeda. Distributing these shorter videos allows for the group to tailor the message to a variety of different audiences, as well as create and distribute many more videos. Another prominent feature was highlighted in the James Foley execution video. The video was short, only spent the necessary time to get the message across, and faded to black right as a knife met James Foley’s neck. This method was used with a very deliberate purpose. The first purpose is that it could be quickly shared, and consumed, through a social media platform like Twitter. The second reason, the reason for fading to black, involved the mainstream media. American media already operates with the specific intentions of creating “clickbait”, or news titles that only give enough information to pull a user in. This drives traffic to a website and allows for quicker sharing (Brooking & Singer). In the case of the James Foley execution, it was a clickbait video intended to be shared specifically by the American media. After the edited version was picked up by the media, and played on national television due to no real violence being shown, the actual video was released onto Twitter to draw users to follow links that belonged to ISIS indoctrination and propaganda websites hosting the full video. In comparison to modern American marketing techniques, ISIS’s use of video strikes all the necessary chords. In fact, the similarity of this particular method of marketing comparative to that of a Super Bowl commercial is striking. (Berger & Morgan)
Aside from the videos that ISIS releases, there is also an active campaign on Twitter with the focus of fusing popular American culture with ISIS propaganda. The most prevalent example would include the #CatsOfISIS campaign. Created by ISIS as a means to exploit the Internet’s obsession with pictures of cats, the photos shown revealed a more human side to the extremist group not seen by the American public before. By sharing photos of cats and hiding the true message, individuals would become much more susceptible to indoctrination. #CatsOfISIS would be only one of many different hashtags that would open up multiple different avenues for a person to arrive at viewing the photo. With the state of today’s Internet sub-culture, identifying with a kitten next to a grenade is much easier a message to spread than that of a beheading (Chastain). Another way of integrating culture is by creating celebrities out of certain fighters. As a propaganda mechanism, this is nothing new. Find a person with a compelling story and drive that narrative until everyone believes in the cause. However, with the use of Twitter, that narrative can spread like wildfire and that person can be lifted to a pantheon not seen in conflicts past. Jihadi John may be the best use of Celebrity within ISIS. Jihadi John was a convert from a foreign country, spoke in an English accent, and executed his victims on camera, including James Foley. The message to the users across the world that see him on Twitter is that if a young person like Jihadi John could get to where he was, why couldn’t they? Information on Jihadi John spread through Twitter as quickly as the tweets of American pop stars. Even after being confirmed dead as a victim of a drone strike in January of 2016, a quick search for #jihadijohn shows that support for him is still alive (“Jihadi John and Terror’s Celebrity Factor”)
All of these messages are an active endeavor to play on emotions. When inspecting why users share as much information as they do on social media, studies indicate that they are specifically driven by emotion (Morrison). ISIS propaganda taps into these emotions and the science behind them. In order to make their content go viral, whether it’s in the depths of Twitter or in the mainstream media, ISIS knows how to evoke high-arousal emotions. In American marketing, there is a model that can predict virality. The model is based on Valence, Arousal, and Dominance (VAD). Valence is how positive or negative an emotion is. Arousal is the range from excitement to relaxation. Dominance is the spectrum between submission and feeling in control (Jones, Libert, & Tynski) As every emotion falls somewhere on the VAD model, ISIS had been finding way to use that to their advantage. Whenever an organization is marketing content, “the message is the virus, the carriers are your audience, and a strong emotional connection to the message is the catalyst” (Jones). As ISIS pushes their propaganda across Twitter, they stay very clear of emotions that that have been proven to be less viral. #CatsOfISIS incites a very positive mixture of emotions, joy and amusement, which in turn indicates that the content will be shared more. On the other end of the spectrum, propaganda videos for pro-ISIS supporters are generally more shocking, another emotion that will factor into the likelihood of virality. This would mostly include video of executions and bombings, and are an act to inspire radicals and push them to share content within their communities.
Propaganda is not the only function Twitter serves to the Islamic State. Since its inception, ISIS has notoriously used Twitter, a western technology, to communicate with thousands of individuals across the social network with a best estimate of 46,000 overt ISIS supporters (Berger & Morgan). The ISIS recruitment effort is a highly effective machine that targets individuals they believe will be valuable to their cause. In fact, the group uses American Twitter marketing strategies to do just that. According to Lars Schmidt, co-founder of the recruitment company Amplify Talent, there is a very specific process that needs to be adhered to on Twitter in order to recruit individuals for careers. Lars begins with the first step any company should do when getting started on Twitter, which is to build a brand presence. The brand that is being created should be personalized and have a message that can relate to potential candidates. The second is to localize the practices to best fit your organization. This would involve an internal examination of the message and how best to express it. Once that is done, the company can begin engagement efforts. This is most likely done by analyzing specific hashtags and manually targeting individuals that show interest in the efforts of the company. Once targets have been sourced, the company can reach out to the individuals and begin communications. If the message is properly received, individuals are then captured (Schmidt). When employing these typical American marketing techniques, and through the use of a massive amount of supporters driving their marketing engine, the company examined illustrates the exact same efforts used by the Islamic State.
In order to fully understand this endeavor, the New York Times, in a joint effort with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, examined a very specific young woman in the state of Washington as she was targeted by ISIS sympathizers. Titled ISIS and the Lonely Young American, the article illuminates ISIS’s application of dark treachery masquerading as kindness and friendship. Alex, the young American woman, was a Sunday school teacher and a babysitter. Sick of her suburban lifestyle, a feeling of loneliness bared down on the 23-year-old. She longed for friends and companionship. Eventually, upon hearing the news of James Foley’s execution, she took to Twitter to openly ask questions about ISIS and their motives. This was soon followed by an orchestrated indoctrination effort used many times before (Callimachi), an effort outlined first in Al Qaeda’s A Course in the Art of Recruiting. Although this document was first captured in a cave in Iraq in 2009, the techniques are still the same, although they have been inflated to keep up with current technologies. Emphasize isolation, wait for the opportune moment, and a proper set of manners are among the many techniques that litter the definitive terrorist recruitment guide (Al Qa’idi). These techniques were exactly what was used against the young Alex.
“All of us have a natural firewall in our brain that keeps us from bad ideas. They Look for weaknesses in the wall, and then they attack” (Wedaddy in Callimachi). And that’s just what ISIS did. After detecting the sense of isolation Alex already had, ISIS recruiters actively pushed her further from her family and her faith. Upon asking her questions, she was flooded with individuals begging to be her friend, to shower her in gifts, and support any idea she had. These gifts included outfits, chocolate, money, and a translated version of the Quran. One gift, to both Alex and her interested cousin, contained lots of chocolate, a hallmark card with a cutout of a kitten, and $40. The card was signed with “Please go out and enjoy pizza TOGETHER”, followed underneath by, “Twitter Friends”. Although Twitter user @KindLadyAdilah pressed against the grooming process, warning death if Alex were to continue, she abandoned reason and dedicated herself to the Muslim way of life. While leading a double life, Alex went on record to describe discussions of bombings with Twitter user @SurgeonOfDeath and even an interrogation process with user @InviteToIslam, a radical Islamist group based in England (Middle East Media Research Institute in Callimachi), to prove she wasn’t an American spy. Alex’s situation was eventually brought to the attention of her family as she was planning a trip to Austria. A trip to marry a 40-year-old man and complete her conversion of faith. Alex’s involvement ended after her grandmother contacted the FBI, as she promptly agreed to cooperate in an intensive investigation. However, even after the article in the New York Times, and agreeing to not contact members of ISIS or ISIS supporters again, Alex continues communications to this day; a testament to the resolution of the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts (Callimachi).
As ISIS has clearly shown mastery of propaganda and recruitment on Twitter, one could argue that Twitter should be responsible for the rise of the terrorist organization. Would the remnants of Al Qaeda have been able to have been pieced together to form ISIS and initiate the global impact that has since followed if not for Twitter as a communications platform? With tweets stating “The killing will be .. I start walking with my bomb and no one know I have a bomb I will kill a more more more of son of bitch Americans” (@enghaltham1989), can Twitter safely walk the line between a private company upholding the privacy of their users and that of a sympathizer towards terrorism?
In order to combat such criticism, Twitter has upped the rate at which it handles pro-ISIS accounts. In a statement from the company following a suspension of 125,000 accounts promoting acts of terrorism in early 2016, the company condemns “the use of Twitter to promote terrorism”. The company also emphasizes that the “Twitter Rules make it clear that this type of behavior, or any violent threat, is not permitted on our service” (Twitter). Although ISIS benefits extremely from Twitter, this act was followed by death threats towards the company’s cofounder, Jack Dorsey, as it was a direct effort with authorities to identify the accounts that were suspended. (IJR). However, many believe this is not enough to battle the narrative pushed by ISIS on Twitter. Suspensions do not delete the accounts, and they eventually become active again. In one case, user @turjaman123 has been suspended at least 122 times (IJR). At the time of this writing, the account was suspended, although not removed from the site. Suspensions also serve as a tool to focus user efforts. Trends indicate that, following large suspensions, pro-ISIS accounts become more active and insular in order to push their agenda harder and farther, even if their boundaries remain within the realm of supporting accounts (Berger & Morgan).
FBI director James Comey also insinuates Twitter’s responsibility. “ISIL’s M.O. is they broadcast on Twitter, get people to follow them, then move them to Twitter Direct Messaging while they evaluate whether they’re a potential liaison either to travel or to kill where they are. (Comey in “Terror Threat Snapshot”). However, in a lawsuit filed against Twitter, a grieving widow of a terror attack victim disputed ISIS’s presence on Twitter as material support for terrorism (Brandom). The judge ultimately deemed Twitter, and it’s direct messaging capabilities, to be applicable under the Safe Harbor clause of the Communications Decency Act (“Tamara Fields v. Twitter Inc.”). This clause was created to protect “online services from liability for speech published on their network” (Brandom). Legally, as it this case suggests, Twitter is not responsible for the rise of ISIS and its extensive online presence.
ISIS has taken the techniques of yesteryear and successfully applied them to the tools of the modern age in a manner that would outshine any American marketing agency. In doing so, the terrorist organization has successfully manipulated western technology against the very people that created it, and in return, generated the most enthusiasm for a terror group this world has ever seen. In fact, the Islamic State’s efforts were noticed and feelings of sympathy have even been generated through the research conducted for this paper, or at the very least, it’s been made very apparent how and why individuals would share compassion towards the group. Radicalizing the planet has never been so easy… and ISIS owes it all to Twitter.