Social media propaganda. Source: birgerking, Flickr CC
The breakthrough of social media has given different actors the ability to communicate their message to an immense audience in a matter of seconds. It has provided individuals and organizations with the ability to spread ideas, mobilize supporters, and perhaps even start revolutions. While the use of social media has led to many positive outcomes in terms of peace and human rights, it has lately been used as a tool for war and terror by the terrorist organization calling itself ISIS. With the use of social media, ISIS has developed sophisticated methods for advancing their agenda and recruiting new members from all over the world. Different governments are finding themselves losing citizens to the terrorist organization, and they now face the challenge of countering its rather effective social media propaganda.
Since it began receiving media attention, ISIS has successfully managed to recruit Muslim and non-Muslim members from all over the world, something that might be considered unusual for a strictly Islamic organization. As a spawn of Al-Qaeda, ISIS could be said to have learned from their parent-organization in terms of propaganda and recruitment. While Al-Qaeda’s media strategy often involved tedious videos of old bearded men reading from religious scripts, the tactics of ISIS are considered modern and adjusted to a younger audience.
In order for ISIS to appeal to such audiences, they use tactics intended to create a picture of social inclusion. This is something that might be especially appealing to Muslim citizens targeted by islamophobia, but also young non-Muslim individuals who feel excluded from their own society. Moreover, besides the infamous use of gore and violence the jihadists are using modern day strategies, which young audiences might be able to relate to. ISIS uses western popular culture and portrays images of thriving younger members. As a recruitment tool this has proven effective: countries such as the US, Canada, France, and the UK have been experiencing their own citizens joining the terror organization.
As the motives of ISIS are not merely religious but also political, a large segment of its propaganda involves normalising the life inside the caliphate, showing that the organization involves more than just a holy war, and displaying the caliphate as a functioning society. Depictions of regular families, children at play, and people simply living normal lives all serve to present the illusion of a legitimate state.
— ISIS Baghdadi (@CaliphIbrahimAR) May 16, 2015
ISIS has not only been successful in recruiting members from western states, but it might even have succeeded in influencing acts of terror in various western countries. This has made it a rather urgent issue for the targeted countries to resolve. A number of countries in the West have begun to develop their own approaches for countering terrorist propaganda by using social media; approaches that might at times come off as juvenile and even desperate.
The Obama administration has acknowledged that ISIS has been more effective at recruiting people and raising money for its’ organisation. Fighting fire with fire was the US response to ISIS’ social media machine, subsequently starting a content war. Not only is the State Department getting in on the action, but they are also recruiting help from tech firms, NGO’s and other governments, such as the UAE. ‘Think again. Turn away’ is their tagline that has been used on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, and to reach even larger audiences the US State Department has begun creating content in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali. All in the attempt to counter ISIS’s recruitment potential and to prevent citizens moving abroad to fight for ISIS.
— Think AgainTurn Away (@ThinkAgain_DOS) May 15, 2015
The content produced is a series of compelling narratives that tugs at your emotional chords. Critics have described this platform as ineffective, as it provides a public stage for jihadists to voice their own arguments. Some tweets from the US State Department are indeed questionable, as some believe that they were intended to cause provocation. This tactic has made this department appear ridiculous at times. Then again, that is the nature of trolling.
No one is surprised that discussions on social media platforms have become heated. Maybe this is why the United Kingdom on the other hand has tried a different tactic by endorsing public figures in the Muslim community. Their aim is to use social media as a platform to promote their message of unity in the UK. A similar message as the Scottish referendum, that the UK is stronger together.
France is also getting in on the action and producing emotionally charged content to prevent their citizens from joining ISIS. However, their media tactics have also been criticised, due to their ineffectiveness. The French Ministry of Interior anti-ISIS campaign used the hashtag #stopdjihadisme. This campaign was a checklist of what behaviours parents should look for in their children. The campaign was very clumsy, and has promoted the idea that if your child isn’t into sport they could be a target for ISIS recruitment.
Even though many countries are taking up the fight against ISIS, the organisation is still gaining ground in Syria and Iraq. Many have agreed that these campaigns have been ineffective at stopping ISIS from securing new recruits. Perhaps it is time for the US and other countries in the West to stop, and think again.
LAUREN McINTOSH and MICHAL GIEDA