Aside from its sheer brutality, what separates the so called Islamic State from other similar groups is its adeptness online. The use of social media and other technological mediums to spread the message of extremism isn’t new, but Isis is terrifyingly effective at not only spreading fear but enticing recruits through digital campaigns. The examples of western teens being duped into abandoning their lives and joining the cult do not happen in isolation - the psychological factors at play in radicalization are too complex for reductive explanations - but Daesh’s digital tactics can be said to play a significant role.
The group creates horrific content with the express purpose of going ‘viral,’ gaining ‘reach’ in a way eerily similar to that of western consumer giants, as explored in a fascinating Financial Times piece. According to the report, ‘Isis has recently even put GoPro cameras on the end of guns to produce images that will appeal to millennial video game players,’ and the uncomfortable reality is that any media exposure plays a part in giving the group a spotlight. Indeed, given that only some 3% of Isis’ messages are in English or French, most see the messages through western media translation.
And, despite Isis’ proficiency, senior US officials are determined that it is ‘losing the digital war.’ Former editor of Time magazine and senior State Department official Rick Stengel, said: ‘Over the last year, there has been an exponential increase in anti-Isil voices… [these are] creating six times as much content as Isil is creating.’ As technologically committed as Isis may be, the co-ordinated response from both governmental and independent bodies has been powerful if slow, and Isis’ job of spreading a message is getting harder.
Isis numbers online are being whittled down. Following the attacks on Paris in November last year, hacking group Anonymous ‘declared war,’ vowing to strangle the group’s social media presence, something known Anonymous member Gregg Housh believes they’re achieving. ‘Everyone loves to say ‘hacking,’ but what Anonymous is doing is just tons of research, identifying and monitoring everything out there that ISIS might use to communicate and recruit, and trying to get those channels shut down, be it Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, telegram channels,’ he said. ‘They’re just trying to shut down their ability to talk to the public. I think it’s had a decent effect.’
In terms of the US government, Isis have been the target of an unprecedented response. The military’s ‘Cybercom’ has been adapted to tackle Isis’ model - having been previously intended for use against nation-state enemies. And, though its effect has been slower than the Pentagon intended, according to the Washington Post, its efforts to undermine Isis’ online presence will only become more effective as the right people are found to lead the attack and the technology’s uses are better understood. Cybercom is under pressure to deliver results, but for now it’s social media sites having arguably the biggest effect on the conflict.
The government has been working with the likes of Twitter to shut down the group’s influential social media presence. The company declared in February that 125,000 accounts associated with extremism had been shut down since mid-2015. Given how integral these accounts are in terms of recruiting new militants, the online offensive will hurt Daesh as much as on-the-ground activity.
It’s a sad fact that even morbid curiosity in Daesh’s online activity feeds their model; images circulating of atrocities will horrify the vast majority, but all exposure is positive exposure for a group working to spread such an incendiary message. As put by the FT, what makes the fight ’so insidious is that it involves all of us, sitting in our own homes in front of our computer screens or mobile phones.’ This is where Twitter and other bodies can step in, to cut off the supply of the propaganda before it reaches an audience.
In Twitter’s blog on the subject published in February, the company acknowledged the difficult questions of free-speech brought up by the suspension of perceived extremist accounts, but the social media giant is very clear on its rules on the matter. ‘We condemn the use of Twitter to promote terrorism and the Twitter Rules make it clear that this type of behavior, or any violent threat, is not permitted on our service,’ it said.
There is no ‘magic algorithm’ to identify those allied with Daesh/Isis/any other moniker related to extremist ideology that parades under the banner of ‘Islam’, but Twitter’s commitment to silencing where possible is a necessary supplement to military efforts.