No one denies ISIS success in exploiting social media to spread their messages and reach potential recruits around the globe. They used targeted propaganda aimed at certain audiences. In fact, many of the releases were directed towards Western Muslims and, therefore, tackled the grievances of these Muslims.
In 2014/2015, social media played a crucial role in convincing ISIS sympathizers and fanboys around the world that the caliphate project was, indeed, real and happening right in front of their eyes. They had better hurry to be a part of the first generation reviving this utopian state from the dead.
In particular, to project itself as the only legitimate entity that should govern and distinguishing itself from all other groups, ISIS focused closely on the caliphate’s supposedly effective governmental system, good social services, equality, flourishing economy, and just and godly rule. Such propaganda was very effective with impressionable people and disenfranchised youth who divide the world into either good or evil, and who usually harbor feelings of being pushed aside in their societies because of the injustices, real or imagined, that they face.
Social media has given terrorists the opportunity to directly contact their target audience, to spread terror, and recruit or impress followers. ISIS has been described as the most skillful terrorist group at using social media to recruit new members. By 2015, they had become the rock stars of terrorist groups, reaching thousands of online sympathizers in the four corners of the planet. In fact, the group succeeded in mobilizing more than 40,000 foreign recruits from over a 100 countries. Their videos were professionally filmed and edited, portraying their version of a glamorized and “cool” image of terrorism. Even worse, ISIS released its own Android free app entitled ‘The Dawn of Glad Tidings,’ which was detected and suspended later.
Furthermore, ISIS was successful in operating outside their immediate sphere, reaching hundreds of thousands of people beyond their supporters. But by 2017, thanks to suspensions of their accounts, they became restricted to their own closed circles. In response, the group transitioned to more secure sites and made Telegram its preferred platform. Telegram is a free, cross-platform messaging app that offers secure messaging. In fact, Telegram replaced the group’s online presence on more open platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as these companies aggressively policed and shut down IS-linked accounts.
As we showed in our academic article on Telegram, channels are often created in advance of any material being posted on them as a prophylactic to aggressive closures. For instance, in one Amaq channel we were monitoring, an invitation link to an even newer Amaq channel was posted in the first few minutes. We noticed similar patterns across all official ISIS channels. The administrators posted a backup link (which is always shared across multiple chat rooms) after posting a significant corpus of their propaganda. The postings are often comprised of archived materials from previously closed channels. The data is “dumped” en masse into the new channel in batches after the channel has existed for several hours.
This delay provides some insight about ISIS Telegram usage: the need for very high speed internet access, the existence of large backups of previously posted data, and coordination to load thousands of megabytes within seconds.
The question we need to ask ourselves, however, is what happens when technology companies identify these individuals, and ban them from continuing to use (and exploit) their platforms. Last year, big companies stated that they are joining up their efforts to come up with better ways to delete and reduce the distribution of terrorist material. But how effective are these methods?
Though violent content (beheadings, bombings, calls to violence) is immediately taken off their platforms, managing other content in gray areas is not easy. For instance, last year, YouTube removed all videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni AQ recruiter killed by a US drone strike in Yemen in 2011. A search on YouTube for al-Awlaki will only show around a hundred videos authored by him. However, most of the deleted videos are re-uploaded on the platform with different titles, and without mentioning the name of the preacher, as can be seen here, here, here, and here. Most of the videos are theological in nature and have nothing to do with terror.
It goes this way: terrorists strike virtually, tech companies develop tools to detect, counter, and delete propaganda, then terrorists develop techniques to hide and still pass on their message, and so on and so forth in an unending cycle. Terrorists never give up, and as these tools are available, they will keep using them to their advantage. They will always find ways to reinvent themselves.
In fact, some ISIS media men and women used to brag about how many times they were suspended, equating the ban to virtual martyrdom and proudly sharing a screenshot of their suspended account, thanking God for such circumstances. They take pleasure in being banned. Virtual “repeated martyrdom” shows that they are a burden on their enemies.
Terrorists will always find ways to replicate and look for alternative platforms to spread their propaganda. Such propaganda is not expensive to produce, and can be easily spread online via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or other social networks. For instance, Asawerti Turjuman’ Media Production (@turmediaxxx) is one of the most widely known and productive platforms of IS. Before transitioning to Telegram, the account was active on YouTube and on most social medial networks. In one instance, the account posted a screenshot of its 256th deleted account, defying Twitter suspensions over 200 times and counting.