One of the contributing factors in the forward momentum of the Islamic State (IS) [formerly and variously the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq & al-Sham;and the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant (ISIL)] is the rapid and regimented dissemination of the organization’s message.
In contrast to the occasionally disorganized and single-language social messages of other extremist groups, IS’s strategic use of social media is filled with attempts to intimidate and demoralize as well as recruit both local and Western audiences. Depending on the intended objective or the target audience the IS message and the methods adopt a different “tone of voice” and set of production values.
With a reported 2500 Western fighters (Grose, 2014), IS’s efforts would appear to be a success, but how influential was the use of social media and what are they doing differently? Additionally, are “boots on the ground” the only indicator of success. We do not believe so. A more threatening and undermining effect of this strategy is the construction of a sleeper network and the manipulation of international cells whom IS never intend to draw to the actual conflict zones.
To solely focus on the immediate effect in terms of IS fighting numbers in the field and to encourage this social media activity so that Western intelligence agencies can locate activists or anticipate operations in the short term is one dimensional and ignores the more worrying mid to long term effects and possible strategic intentions of IS.
TMG Corporate Services is conducting a long range study, to determine the success of these methods on all levels while considering established notions about social media, persuasion, and the psychology of scarcity.
‘IS’ as a Corporation – Employing savvy social media use to build a Western “Army”
IS is a more sophisticated and organized extremist organization than most identified in the past, rising from the ashes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its carefully planned four-part operation to target separate processes and terrorize select groups of individuals involved in the rebuilding of Iraq (Kirdar, 2011).
It should come as no surprise, then, that their media wing operates as a manipulative, top-tier, social media savvy corporation with carefully prepared materials in a variety of languages, designed to appeal to myriad audiences. IS uses the same Twitter strategies adopted by key players in social media customer service, including the careful use of hash-tags, tweeting to celebrities, and mobilizing their Twitter followers with calls to action.
The findings of Burson-Marsteller’s first Global Twitter Influence Study (2014) show individuals who follow large corporations are predominantly young, male, Western, and have a social pull 3,274 times stronger than their peers – a powerful audience of potential recruits that IS has designed a very careful social media strategy in order to reach. IS, as a corporation with a carefully deployed social media strategy, uses two main tools: YouTube and Twitter.
YouTube, Scarcity, and Recruitment
TMG Corporate Services have received exclusive YouTube content from sources in the Middle East showing a more complex and sophisticated plan, utilizing original creative content to target desired audience segments in a manner more reminiscent of an experienced public relations firm than a terrorist organization.
When questioning the possible success of these videos as recruitment tools, we first analyzed the content of these videos, as professional production values as well as the use of English may make them more dangerous than previous materials when used for Western recruitment. Second, we considered these videos using the psychological and rhetorical concepts of scarcity, and the role these concepts play in the effectiveness of the clips on their intended audience.
TMG Corporate Services received seven links to YouTube videos, between mid-June and mid-July 2014, which are of value to security and risk management providers as they illustrate that IS, in our view, is adopting media tactics heretofore unseen from Middle Eastern extremist organizations.
These videos feature elements similar to those one might expect to see in a coordinated advertising campaign or a large-scale non-profit drive. All videos feature target audience native speakers delivering the IS message in a calm, rational manner, at visual and vocal odds with the societally constructed idea of a raging extremist. All videos feature song’s with sophisticated arrangements that serve as a backdrop for carefully constructed lyrics brimming with anti-Western / anti-Jewish sentiment. The professionally created content of these videos is dangerous, increasing targeted Westerners’ identification with the group and giving it a similar footing with other sources in the mainstream media.
Another unique aspect of these videos, when considered in conjunction with their high production values, became clear when our analysts noted the viewer numbers of each clip. Unlike other YouTube videos uploaded by IS associated accounts and distributed to the public at large via mass Twitter links and other methods, these videos had low hit counts.
A low YouTube “hit” count and shoddy production values are clear indications of propaganda and easily dismissed as traditional extremism. However, a low number of viewers combined with professional production speak and audience segment targeting makes the “chosen” viewers more susceptible due to the social psychology concept of scarcity. A study by Worchel, Lee and Adewole (1975) illustrated that individuals value an object more highly if it appears to be more rare. Similarly, information that is harder to obtain is viewed as more trustworthy. Two thousand years earlier, Aristotle was already covering the subject in his “Rhetoric,” stating, “Further, what is rare is a greater good than what is plentiful,” and additionally, “… Besides, what comes only as long intervals has the value of rarity.”
In a society where being unique has become a valuable commodity, particularly during key developmental phases for an individual’s personality, it should come as no surprise that these “rare” IS videos have the capability of being dangerous recruitment tools. The videos are viewable to all YouTube users while they are “live”. However, the invitations to view this content were privately sent to multiple TMG Corporate Services dummy Facebook, Google+ and YouTube accounts. These accounts had deliberately demonstrated a demographic and behavior pattern that would make their “owners” interesting recruitment targets for IS.
Over a two week period, of twenty highly active pro-Islam / pro-Jihad accounts, seventeen were privately “invited” to add temporary IS accounts to their profiles or circles and in the process view the seemingly exclusive content. The IS accounts issuing the invites variously stayed active for between two and five days after receipt of the invitation and in the intervening periods some links to external content were withdrawn or the target content source deleted or moved. The objective in this behavior would appear to be to manifest feelings of exclusivity and insider knowledge in the target and may engender increased enthusiasm in a vulnerable or disenfranchised individual, creating the illusion that they may be of particular worth to IS.
Twitter, Propaganda, and Intimidation
If IS has found a niche on YouTube for recruitment and testing the usefulness of audience targeting, then the organization’s tactics when using Twitter should be considered its anti-thesis. IS appears to be using Twitter as a platform for large-scale information dissemination, sharing images and a message of intimidation with local Middle Eastern and Western sources. When deliberating on whether IS’s Twitter strategy has been successful, there are three main points to consider when analyzing the intersection of IS, Twitter, and success.
If learning how to become ingrained in the culture of Twitter is considered success, then IS is making steady progress. From inserting themselves into a World Cup hash-tag with a violent image, which helped IS accounts acquire thousands of unintentional views, to co-opting a sign held by U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and subverting her message, the social media strategists at IS understand how to attach themselves to successful social media campaigns to garner more attention (Nordland, 2014). However, this method does not appear to have furthered any of IS’s goals, with the exception of press coverage. While this should not be ignored, it is unlikely to be the organization’s only desire for such a convenient, global communication platform.
If IS’s purpose in using Twitter is not to recruit but to threaten, in a general and non-targeted manner, then results should be considered mixed. There is no doubt that their threatening messages on local accounts for specific Middle Eastern areas may have negative effects on the psychological well-being of the local populace, especially when these account feature images of violence. It is likely that such messages, spread by loudspeaker and on Twitter, led to Christians fleeing Mosul on July 19th 2014 (Swarts, 2014). However, even when accompanied with images of a most violent nature, threats have only served to rouse Western audiences and provide them with a cause to unite against IS more cohesively (BBC News, 2014).
Finally, if the purpose of IS’s Twitter strategy is to exercise control over the platform, it should perhaps be considered a resounding failure. IS’s accounts stay open and active only at the behest of the US intelligence community (Daileda & Franceschi-Bicchierai, 2014), and Twitter itself can shut them down at any time.
Suggested Course of Action
This analysis considers IS’s basic use of two social media tools through June/July 2014. When al-Qaeda used online tools for recruitment, a thorough tactical analysis with in-depth assessments about the organization’s success was not possible until almost a decade after recruitment began (Gerwehr & Daly, 2005).
It is likely that in-depth research about IS’s success or failure to use social media may take a comparable amount of time. However, since IS has succeeded in recruiting more Westerners than any other group to date, it is imperative to begin the process now.
We recommend analysis of accounts which are providing the highest level of audience segment targeting toward Western audiences, including analyzing names chosen for such accounts and their use of idioms and slogans, with particular attention to evidence of positive Western response and IS’s ability to capitalize on success, to predict threats and develop countermeasures. Other avenues for analysis are currently being developed and results and findings will take the form of further posts on our various publishing platforms.
BBC News, 2014. Americans scoff at isis twitter threats. BBC News, 8(7), pp.1-15. Available from: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-28136109 [Accessed July 21, 2014].
Burson-Marsteller, 2014. The global corporate twitter influence study – burson·marsteller. Burson·Marsteller, 8(7), pp.1-15. Available from: http://www.burson-marsteller.com/bm-blog/the-global-corporate-twitter-influence-study/ [Accessed July 21, 2014].
Daileda, C. & Franceschi-Bicchierai, L., 2014. Us intelligence officials want isil fighters to keep tweeting. Mashable, 8(7), pp.1-15. Available from: Http://mashable.com/2014/07/11/us-wants-iraq-radicals-to-tweet/ [Accessed July 21, 2014].
Gerwehr, S. & Daly, S., 2014. Al-qaida: terrorist selection and recruitment. In Al-Qaida and Global Jihad, Part 1. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, pp. 73-89.
Grose, T.K., 2014. Western ‘jihadists’ trekking to syria, iraq pose new terror threat. US News, 32(5), pp.906-914. Available from: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/07/09/western-jihadists-trekking-to-syria-iraq-pose-new-terror-threat [Accessed July 21, 2014].
Kirdar, M., 2011. Al-qaeda in iraq. Strategic Comments [Online], 8(7), 1-15. Available from: Http://csis.org/ [Accessed July 21, 2104].
Nordland, R., 2014. Iraq’s sunni militants take to social media to advance their cause and intimidate. The New York Times, 8(7), pp.1-15. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/world/middleeast/iraqs-sunni-militants-take-to-social-media-to-advance-their-cause-and-intimidate.html?_r=0 [Accessed July 21, 2014].
Swarts, P., 2014. Christians flee mosul after isil threat: convert to islam or die. Washington Times, 8(7), pp.1-15. Available from: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/19/christians-flee-mosul-after-isil-threat-convert-is/ [Accessed July 21, 2014].
Worchel, S., Lee, J. & Adewole, A., 1975. Effects of supply and demand on ratings of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(5), 906-914.