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Opinion: ISIS's social media machine

Terrorist organisation ISIS has employed a sleek social media strategy to recruit foreign fighters through propaganda, writes Cait Kelly.

Last month four Australian brothers crossed the Turkish border into Syria. After telling their family they were travelling to Thailand they sent a text message to their mother back home in Sydney: “we made it to Bailad al-sham (Syria), we will see you in paradise.”

ISIS’s four new recruits joined the estimated 70-or-so Australians now fighting in Syria and Iraq, making Australia the largest nation per capita to lose its citizens to the terrorist organisation. More than 15,000 foreigners from over 80 countries are estimated to have actively joined ISIS’s fight for a Caliphate.

The four young Australians are a classic case of ISIS’s recruitment strategy. Muslim community leaders have cited social media as the biggest influence in departures to the ongoing war.

ISIS’s online propaganda campaign effectively targets disenfranchised westerners. It lures them into a false sense of purpose by contrasting the West’s often intolerant perceptions of Islam with the idealisation of a Caliphate, and then throws in Hollywood-style action in its execution.

Their social media strategy is sleek in its aesthetic, swift in its approach and undoubtedly successful.

"Winning the online war is essential to combating public perception of the IS. It would mean limiting their funding, their recruitment numbers and their power."

Western recruiters use social media and a network of ISIS supporters to hunt down, woo and proposition new members. Whilst they predominantly use Twitter, they’ve targeted every avenue of social media, including the development of an ISIS news app, to spread their different brands.

Brand one is ISIS as the goodwill guys. Several of their Twitter feeds, of which there are thousands, often depict soldiers playing with children, distributing food, performing social services and hanging out with kittens. They strive to showcase the humanity of ISIS, mixed in with western familiarities. Fighters tweet about how much they love Disney movies and strike grinning poses with jars of Nutella. The narrative is charitable, community minded and fun.

Brand two is action-man themed. It matches traditional ideals of masculinity with the glorification of war. It portrays the conflict as honourable, even cool, typified by the sale of ISIS hoodies and t-shirts online for as little as seven dollars. It portrays terrorists as suave freedom fighters.

Brand three depicts ISIS eradicating evil in the name of Allah, reminding its followers to honour the supposed peace a global Caliphate would create, which vindicates the barbaric means the terrorist organisation takes to reach its ultimate end.

On Twitter they hijack trending hashtags, flooding topics like the World Cup and Scottish independence with pro-ISIS messages. They enlist the help of their supporters to tweet at certain times of the day using particular hashtags. Often these campaigns distort the results of Arabic twitter accounts like @Activehashtags, which promote each days trending tags. It results in IS propaganda efficiently spreading into hundreds of thousands of twitter feeds around the globe.

The level of sophistication in their online campaigns is unprecedented compared to other extremist groups. Essentially they’ve become media gurus. They blow Barack Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ way out of the water.

Social media to this Middle Eastern conflict is what television was to Vietnam. They’ve changed the landscape of warfare. ISIS’s command of social media left western leaders on the back foot - and no one seems really sure about how to handle it.

While ISIS comfortably plays out the conflict online acquiring support, instilling fear, raising funds and recruiting newbies to join them, the difficulties for countries trying to curb their recruitment process is immense.

Currently there is no overall strategy in place to control the group’s social media influence. The Iraqi government has attempted to block access to major social media outlets, however this does little as it only applies to the government-controlled regions. Surprisingly, ISIS don’t seem to tweet from inside Iraqi territory unless they’ve just won the land.

In America, the White House has launched pilot programs in an attempt to reach young people via social media before they become radicalised. In 2013 the State Department launched a massive online campaign titled ‘Think again, turn away’. Unfortunately it was not only ineffective but also tactless.  On Twitter, it dissolved into petty disputes with ISIS sympathisers over which side had killed more people.

There have also been waves of counter campaigns. #notinmyname was a British initiative that saw Muslims across the world denouncing the terrorist organisation via Twitter. Closer to home, PaVE (People Against Violent Extremism), an Australian non-government organisation, launched three short films in October to offset ISIS’s message. Such messages from non-government organisations have, in the past, been perceived as more effective than government-generated messages.

Australian politicians have awkwardly been trying to deal with the radicalisation of Aussie youth, while introducing new legislation that grants ASIO a greater reach in surveillance. Many individuals from our Islamic communities have spoken against the new laws, arguing that they target Muslims.

What is clear is that winning the online war is essential to combating public perceptions of ISIS. It would mean limiting their funding, their recruitment numbers and their power. 

As Australian forces once again get involved in Iraq, the nation faces a new threat: losing young Australians in 140 characters or less of indoctrination.  

The Point

Terrorist organisation ISIS has employed a sleek social media strategy to recruit foreign fighters through propaganda

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