Terrorist Propaganda and the Sophisticated Use of Social Media

by Laura-Lee Walker

“The advance of an army used to be marked by war drums. Now it’s marked by volleys of tweets”.

-J.M. Berger

Terrorists are increasingly using social media networks, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, to further their message and goals because of its accessibility, global reach and affordability.

CIA director, John Brennon, spoke about how social media makes it harder to fight terror stating that “technologies can help groups like ISIL coordinate operations, attract new recruits, disseminate propaganda, and inspire sympathizers across the globe to act in their name” and addressed the overall threat of terrorism stating that it is “greatly amplified by today’s interconnected world, where an incident in one corner of the globe can instantly spark a reaction thousands of miles away; and where a lone extremist can go online and learn how to carry out an attack without ever leaving home.”

Extremists across the board are using social media to recruit, raise funds and spread fear; however, ISIS is one of the most advanced in using social media strategies. Not only do they have powerful, grass-roots support, they are able to masterfully use social media to inflate and control their message.

It’s common for terrorists to use social media to exploit media to further their agenda, such as to instill fear or free an imprisoned comrade. For example, ISIS has released videos of beheadings of Westerners in Syria. The videos have been posted online where they can be viewed by the public, as well as sent to government officials as threats.

Extremists target victims on social networks in increasingly sophisticated ways “tweets and Facebook posts carry emotions to the reader, and tweets by terror groups are often ‘fun’… Extremist organizations have specialized public relations strategies. They use Facebook for teenagers and for women who stay at home. Children under eight years of age get their own set of militant cartoons to familiar them with the ideology”, says, author Manasi Gopalakrishnan.

“Activists for groups like Hizbul Islam and Jaish e Muhammad use tweets about daily life, like the food they eat, and slowly sneak in their ‘views’ on the plight of children in Palestine,” says “Gulmina Bilal, executive director of Individualland, an NGO in Pakistan.

The official ISIS Twitter app called, The Dawn of Glad Tidings (also known as “Dawn”) is promoted as a way to keep up-to-date with news about the terrorist group. The app asks for a significant amount of personal information when users sign up and then the “app will post tweets to your account – the content of which is decided by someone in ISIS’s social-media operation… the tweets include hashtags, and images, and the same content is also tweeted by the accounts of everyone else who has signed up for the app, spaced out to avoid triggering Twitter’s spam-detection algorithms”, says J.M. Berger, co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror.

The app is just one way that ISIS uses Twitter to inflate its message. ISIS also uses a network of upwards of thousands of activists to engage in an organized hashtag campaign. This group “repeatedly tweet hashtags at certain times of day so that they trend on the social network”.

Although social media makes combating terrorism difficult, it also creates a vulnerability for the terrorist, and presents an opportunity to use open-source intelligence to combat their efforts, which will be explored next month.

Laura-Lee is an open-source intelligence analyst at Kusic and Kusic Private Investigators. She specializes in litigation support, background checks, and online investigations. She studied “Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Comparing Theory and Practice” at the Universiteit Leiden, a university in the Netherlands.

Photo credit: Flickr

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