Small Wars Journal

Primer: Terrorist Usage of Twitter and Social Media

ISIS: Terrorist Usage of Twitter and Social Media

Shawn Peerenboom

In recent years the Internet and social media has rapidly grown and become a part of everyday life for many people.  For example, YouTube alone has nearly two billion active users each month, has one billion hours of content watched every day, and over 300 hours of new video uploaded every minute (Aslam, 2019).  Other social media platforms also generate huge amounts of users and views.  The wide reach of these and other platforms has given many people and groups the opportunity to be heard when they otherwise would not have a voice.  While in many cases this opportunity is celebrated for supporting free speech, groups can take advantage of this access to reach and harm people that would otherwise be outside their influence.  Terrorist organizations are becoming increasingly aware of, and taking advantage of, the global access the Internet and social media gives them.  These groups are no longer limited to recruiting new members in their physical sphere of influence; they can entice and recruit new members from anywhere around the world.  Groups are also using the Internet to encourage and carry out attacks (physical and cyber) around the world.  This paper will focus on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), their use of the Internet and social media over the years, and what we should expect moving forward.

Smart Usage of Social Media

ISIS has become extremely effective at using social media to the group’s advantage.  The group uses social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to spread propaganda and recruit new members from around the world.  ISIS has a dedicated team for creating and posting propaganda on the Internet called the Al Hayat Media Center (Awan, 2017).  The propaganda released by this team has grown increasingly well-polished and sensationalized, and content is released in a variety of languages and targets specific audiences.  Posts will claim that the group has moral grounds for its actions.  Some videos even show ISIS fighters taking care of or protecting children and other injured fighters (Awan, 2017).  Outside of the dedicated media team, ISIS makes extensive use of decentralized media operations to spread its influence on the Internet (Chhetri, 2018).  Members and supporters of the terrorist organization also actively use their own accounts to spread information or show support. 

As terror groups such as ISIS gain more experience using social media platforms, the structure of posts and the methods used to promote the posts are becoming similar to the strategies a business would use to promote a product on those platforms.  Although, the groups can’t directly mimic a business.  They generally are blocked from using straightforward promotion tools put in place by the platform, such as advertisements or paid promotions.  Groups like ISIS also tend to violate the terms of service for the social media platforms they are using.  Much like the battle between cyber attacks and cyber security, terrorist organizations are continually adapting to circumvent detection and removal by the platforms they are using.  The effects of these propaganda campaigns through social media can easily be seen, despite backlash from other users and efforts by the platforms themselves to remove radical content.  There have been many stories of people leaving their countries to join and support ISIS over the years.  Many of the people who have been leaving their countries to join ISIS, or otherwise supporting the group from their home country, are influenced by social media and the group’s presence online.  One of the most recent examples is the case of Hoda Muthana who left the US to join ISIS 4 years ago (Shortell, 2019).

ISIS’s use of Twitter is a prime example of this strategic promotion of content.  The group runs campaigns to get certain hashtags trending on the site.  A trending hashtag means more people will look at the content associated with the hashtag, and it may even cause some popular non-ISIS affiliated accounts to list the hashtag among other top hashtags of the day for their viewers to see (Chhetri, 2018).  Outside of running campaigns for specific hashtags, ISIS and its supporters use hashtags when posting to Twitter at a much higher rate than average users (Alfif, 2018).  A study of ISIS and ISIS related accounts on Twitter that looked at data from 2015, found that a larger than normal proportion of accounts that interacted with ISIS were eventually suspended when compared to average accounts (Alfif, 2018).  This shows that Twitter was working to detect and remove accounts that were spreading or supporting ISIS.  However, the same study started with 24 thousand known ISIS accounts and found 170 thousand accounts that were potentially related to ISIS (Alfif, 2018).  So, despite Twitter’s attempts to control radical content on its platform, ISIS was still able to reach a large audience.  These numbers also do not reflect the number of people who saw ISIS related posts and didn’t interact with the posts.

Clearly, efforts to stop terrorist organizations from using social media and the Internet have not stopped them from reaching a global audience.  One of the big issues with policing content on social media platforms is the sheer amount of information uploaded to each platform every day.  YouTube alone has more than 300 hours of new video uploaded to the site every minute (Aslam, 2019).  It is impossible and unreasonable for this amount of content to be reviewed by people, which has led to the use of automated review and flagging systems to help filter content.  Though these systems are imperfect.  Many people and groups abuse the automated systems to get their content past detection or to garner more attention to their post, and terrorist organizations are joining the crowd of people abusing the system.  All major social media platforms also have features that allow users to report content they see on the site, but the usefulness of such tools is limited by the regular users that make use of them.

While ISIS is one of the most prominent terrorist groups that uses social media to great effect, the group does not typically perform cyber attacks and engage in cyber warfare.  Their involvement in cyber attacks usually involves releasing personal information on people or using personal information to construct kill-lists.  A notable example of ISIS’s involvement in this type of attack is when Junaid Hussian, from Team Poison, left the UK and joined ISIS.  He hacked into US Central Command and used the information he gained to create a kill-list of US military personnel (Chhetri, 2018).  Though ISIS appears to lack strong cyber warfare capabilities for now, we should expect the cyber capabilities of terror groups to grow alongside their social media usage.

Conclusion

ISIS is one of the terrorist organizations that is adapting to and using social media as a platform to spread propaganda and recruit new members.  With the prominence of the Internet, these groups are able to reach people around the world and are no longer limited to influencing only the physical area where they operate.  And the methods ISIS is using for promoting content and ideas is becoming very similar to how businesses promote and target audiences. The way ISIS has used Twitter is a very good example of how effective the group is at reaching large numbers of people.  Despite Twitter’s efforts to suspend accounts linked to ISIS, the group still manages to reach a large audience on the platform.  Social media companies all face challenges as they attempt to keep this extremist content from their services, and one of the biggest hurdles they face is the sheer amount of content that is posted to the platforms every day.  Terror groups like ISIS are going to continue to adapt and refine their usage of social media to influence people around the world.

References

Alfif, Majid, et al. Measuring the Impact of ISIS Social Media Strategy. Texas A&M University, 2018, Measuring the Impact of ISIS Social Media Strategy, people.tamu.edu/~kaghazgaran/papers/alfifi2018mis2.pdf

Aslam, Salman. “• YouTube by the Numbers (2019): Stats, Demographics & Fun Facts.” Omnicore, Omnicore, 6 Jan. 2019, www.omnicoreagency.com/youtube-statistics/

Awan, Imran. “Cyber-Extremism: Isis and the Power of Social Media.” SpringerLink, Springer US, 15 Mar. 2017, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12115-017-0114-0

Chhetri, Deependra. “Global Terrorism and Social Media: A Study of ISIS.” Global Terrorism and Social Media: A Study of ISIS, SIKKIM UNIVERSITY, 2018, 14.139.206.50:8080/jspui/bitstream/1/6072/1/dipendra%20chhetri.pdf

Shortell, David, et al. “Trump Says Alabama Woman Who Joined ISIS Should Not Return to US.” CNN, Cable News Network, 20 Feb. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/02/20/politics/hoda-muthana-state-department/index.html

 

About the Author(s)

Shawn Peerenboom is a student at Michigan State University studying Computer Science.  He is also pursuing a minor in Security Management.