Thinking Aloud: “The Islamic State’s Ideology and Propaganda,” Part II

Mar. 12, 2015 by Darius

[Yesterday I attended a panel discussion on “The Islamic State’s Ideology and Propaganda.”  Cole Bunzel, a PhD candidate at Princeton University, gave a very interesting presentation based on his research on ISIS’s history and ideology, and J.M. Berger, a nonresident fellow of the Brookings Institution, talked about ISIS’s social media presence and campaigns.  Yesterday, I brought you Bunzel’s comments, and today, I’ll share Berger’s remarks.]

Berger began his presentation by explaining that media is very important to ISIS, especially to project an image of strength, power, and invincibility.  ISIS’s choice to portray themselves as strong is a departure from standard insurgent/terrorist tactics.  Most groups whose identity is based around excluding others, like ISIS, build a narrative of weakness, claiming that their group is under attack from outsiders and that this vulnerability forces them to use extreme tactics.  ISIS has certainly maintained the exclusionary identity but has also constructed a narrative of power and success.

Some ISIS content focuses on violence the group is perpetrating, but some of ISIS’s propaganda deals with the more mundane topic of governance.  According to Berger, ISIS propaganda emphasizing good governance within the caliphate is aimed primarily at the local population, those unlucky enough to live in or near areas ISIS controls.  Many messages of extreme violence are also aimed at the local population in order to intimidate the locals into staying in line but some, according to Berger, is designed to attract “psychopaths.”

According to Berger, most of ISIS’s social media presence is on Twitter.  ISIS had a major presence on Facebook and Youtube as well, but these sites are more aggressive than Twitter at removing terrorist content.  Of the social media platforms, Twitter has been the least inclined to interfere with its users.  ISIS focused its efforts on Twitter in part because it was “squeezed out of other platforms.” However, Twitter, too, began efforts to suspend ISIS-linked accounts in September 2014, after the beheading of American journalist James Foley.

Berger began collecting data on ISIS’s Twitter use shortly after the suspension campaign began.  He estimates that there are about 46,000 ISIS-sympathizing Twitter accounts, though some people control more than one account.  Of these, between 500 and 3000 accounts are hardcore ISIS mouthpieces, tweeting hundreds of times per day and inserting ISIS content in unrelated hashtags.  (For instance, during the World Cup, ISIS managed to insert ISIS content in Arabic-language threads relating to the World Cup.)  These hardcore supporters drive ISIS’s social media presence, enabling ISIS to hijack Twitter trends through sheer volume.  However, these accounts have also been those most widely targeted for suspension.

Berger said that the data suggest that ISIS’s Twitter presence has been diminished by Twitter’s efforts to remove ISIS content.  In fact, suspensions are now outpacing new account creation, and ISIS is starting to get outperformed on its own hashtags on a daily basis by everything from angry users in the Gulf to Japanese spambots to paid retweet services touting ISIS setbacks.

As Twitter has cracked down, though, the character of the ISIS Twitter network has also changed.  ISIS sympathizers are becoming more insular, talking more to other sympathizers and less to outsiders.  As a result, an even more profound echo chamber effect is taking hold, which could make the network even more potent at radicalizing outsiders, even if fewer outsiders enter it at all.

Berger noted that although the data are clear that suspending pro-ISIS social media accounts has made a difference and is continuing to make a difference in terms of ISIS’s ability to use social media to distribute propaganda, it is not yet clear how ISIS behaviors will change as a result of the group’s more limited access to social media.

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