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ISIL social media strategy

The terrorist organisation ISIL owns thousands of Facebook and Twitter accounts that are manned around the clock, constantly tracking the latest trends and insinuating themselves into groups and discussions on social media.

ISIL's promotional footage gains traction across multiple platforms. Their exploits are documented with a certain agenda, then packaged into bite-size morsels that stream through the internet from one hashtag to another, appearing on peoples’ feeds, headlining news stories, and pervading our inner psyche. They are creating a subversive messaging entity that is in fact larger, more terrifying, and certainly more credible than the actual group.

ISIL are able to do this so easily because they have one of the best marketing and advertising agencies in the world - the global news networks. News networks not only amplify their messages, but publish it for free. Seizing upon this opportunity, ISIL has invested heavily in the Al-Hayat Media Centre, who churns out sophisticated and well filmed short-videos, morbid annual reports detailing the types and numbers of deaths the group are accountable for, and even a glossy, internationally distributed monthly magazine titled Dabiq, which was briefly available on Amazon.

They appear a marketable brand in many ways, projecting a sense of ‘organisation’ and ‘direction’ that terror hitherto lacked. Just how much of it is fabricated is hard to tell however, as there are so few actual journalists on the ground. And this is why ISIL can so easily capitalise on this apparent news-less vacuum – they essentially fill it up with whatever they like. And the rest of the world is more than willing to consume it.

It is interesting as most legitimate media outlets are generally under strict guidelines to not publish news and content that may have an agenda or lack credible sources. Yet, they are more than willing to put out a ‘tweet’ from ISIL claiming responsibility for an act of terror, without verifying the fact or questioning the underlying agenda. ISIL have employed this method since their inception, quickly assuming responsibility for, to borrow a term from Waleed Aly, “DIY terrorists” the world over, whether or not they directly funded or carried out the attacks.

"ISIL are creating a subversive messaging entity that is in fact larger, more terrifying, and certainly more credible than the actual group."

Helen Vatsikopoulos, a lecturer in journalism at UTS, has been researching the advent of ISIL on social media, and says that this lack of responsibility on the side of news coverage has directly handed ISIL an elevated sense of self. “We have made them out to be [caricatured] villains,” she states. “We’ve essentially framed them as the revolutionaries and anti-heroes they want us to see them as. We cannot know who is actually behind the tweets [and other social media updates].”

The recent spate of supposedly ISIL led attacks have directly utilised this rather blatant loophole: the shooting of Curtis Cheng outside Parramatta Police station; a Russian passenger jet shot down over Egypt, killing all 224 people on board; twin suicide bombings in Beirut, killing over 60; a suicide bombing at a funeral procession in Baghdad leaving 18 dead; a number of co-ordinated bomb blasts and drive-by shootings resulting in 129 dead in Paris. ISIL were quick to assume responsibility for all these isolated attacks, their case abetted by the fact that none of the actual perpetrators survived for questioning. The ongoing, unsolicited media coverage, particularly when ‘white’ people are amongst the casualties,  likens ISIL to an intricate and vastly interconnected network of sleeper cells around the world, ready to attack on command and strike fear into the hearts of innocent, and often ignorant, Western civilians.

Vatsikopoulos says as media-hungry news networks continue to publish content from unverified sources in the hopes of ‘getting the latest scoop’, we are essentially feeding their propaganda into our own hands.

Our media uses their media,” asserts Lauren Williams, a journalist and researcher on ISIL. “As a result, the perceived threat becomes greater than the actual threat for the West.” That’s not to understate the very real suffering of the victims in Paris, but a semblance of balance should be applied to human suffering, no matter their race or creed.

Furthermore, by providing a platform for ISIL-generated media, it becomes far too easy for those less-informed to conflate Islam with terrorism. The members of this band of fanatics  refer to themselves simply as The Islamic State (IS) after establishing a self-proclaimed Caliphate that they claim represents Muslims the world over, despite bearing no apparent affiliation with either statehood or Islam.

But mud sticks, and it manifests into discrimination. And, as Waleed Aly said in last years’ viral video, this is exactly what ISIL want.

Creating further divides between Muslims and non-Muslims of the West, in turn serves ISIL’s method of establishing a framework of us versus them.

“The answer is simple”, suggests Williams, “just stop publishing their material! We don’t uncritically report things – so why uncritically report media that is designed purely as propaganda?”

Vatsikopoulos supports the idea of a new Code of Conduct to be instated for news networks across the globe, one that prevents the spread of terrorist propaganda and demands stringent fact-checking and critical verification. “It is important to be vigilant, and to make sure we can publish what’s going on without pandering to the objectives of ISIL.”

Similarly, we must be wary of those who will suffer the backlash, and make sure that we work towards closing divides rather than widening them.  We should ignore the propaganda discharged by fanatics and work towards creating material that is intelligent, informative, and insightful.

And most of all, we should not let our anger turn to hatred against one another.



The Point

The terrorist organisation ISIL have one of the best marketing and advertising agencies in the world – the global news networks.


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