How ISIS Uses Social Media to Recruit Online

ISIS is an ever-present topic in the news. With the election of Donald Trump as our next president, the issue becomes more pressing. ISIS fuels terrorist sentiments with examples of anti-Muslim behavior (such as the  the registration of Muslims in America that Trump is suggesting).

Social media has allowed for easy overseas recruitment of Americans and other nationalities that are hoping to act on their feelings of hate. ISIS has “at least 40 media organizations pumping out video, audio, and written material” for radicalization and recruitment purposes according to Marie Claire. For women, these images might be of lively markets, laughing children playing outside, or even women carrying machine guns. They’re marketed the idea of sisterhood and the opportunity to marry a jihadi fighter and the opportunity to support the cause by raising the next generation of militants.

Feeding off the want for friends, followers, and likes

Why social media? It easy. You’re at home. No one is watching you. Recruiters aggressively monitor them.

ISIS performs a sort of “love bombing” to bring in women. As soon as you express any type of interest online via posts or asking questions, you are bombarded with attention. On Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr, people will show their allegiance by putting “IS,” “Islamic State,” or  “Dawlah” in their private profiles. Some people put the ISIS flag in their cover photo or profile picture, while others post photos dotted with the symbol. Many brag in their bios about how many times their accounts had been shut down and tell followers about alternative accounts. If you do these things, you instantly gain 500 new followers on Twitter or 500 new Facebook friends.

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People instantly feel popular and important online where they might not have felt welcomed or liked in their own physical community. The conversations that recruiters have are 99 percent of the time not about religious ideology or violent things. They’re trying to create an image of a welcoming community that will help them form their identity and serve their religion. For someone who might be feeling rejected, it could be very appealing. They tailor the conversations they have based on your profile and demographics. They’ll get someone in their 20s from North America to talk to a recruit in America. They’ll use emojis, send GIFs, talk about anything.

Online conversations and privacy

Once recruiters start talking to recruits they move to more secure platforms. Twitter  blocked 125,000 ISIS-related accounts this past February and so the group is looking for more secret and secure ways to convene. Recently, ISIS has been using the app Telegram (amongst others). Telegram is an encrypted messaging app that ensures the utmost privacy for its users.

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The app seems like the perfect place for ISIS to hold conversations because of their high dedication to privacy. What’s startling about the app is that the creator, Puvel Durov, is aware of ISIS’s use of his app. He said they have shut down their public channels but have made no efforts to stop their private conversations. When asked about it at a TechCrunch and whether it bothered him that ISIS was using his app he responded:

I think that privacy, ultimately, and the right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism. If you look at ISIS — yes, there’s a war going on in the Middle East. It’s a series of tragic events. But ultimately, the ISIS will always find a way to communicate within themselves. And if any means of communication turns out to be not secure for them, they’ll just switch to another one. So I don’t think we are actually taking part in these activities. I don’t think we should be guilty or feel guilty about it. I still think we’re doing the right thing, protecting our users’ privacy.

He says that if they kick ISIS off, they’ll just use other platforms. But isn’t it important to create barriers and problems for these terrorists? This brings in the age old question of privacy versus national security. Is it really Telegram’s job to protect ISIS’s privacy as a user? I personally don’t think so but perhaps it does conflict with their business model. It is definitely a different approach than Facebook or Twitter’s in which they monitor private and public conversations with computers (like I describe in one of my blog posts about sarcasm monitoring).

10 comments

  1. bishopkh1 · ·

    This was a super interesting post! I’m really surprised to hear that Puvel from Telegram had such an ambivalent response to the ISIS group using his platform. I think platforms like Twitter and Facebook block ISIS users mainly because they’re in the public eye. At the end of the day, maybe smaller platforms like Telegram might need to keep these users on their platform because they need to create value, and if these users are helping them do so, there isn’t a direct consequence for them to ban them from their platform.

    I really liked your point about how ISIS recruiters make people feel loved and popular to get them into their group. Unfortunately, social media is a tool people often use to boost their self-esteem and look to engage with the platform in a way that makes them feel included and popular. It’s actually a really clever tactic for ISIS recruiters to play off people’s social need that is so obvious on social media, and it’s something people should be aware of before they buy into the recruiter’s empty promises.

  2. Your article ended too soon! I want more! His point is essentially if he doesn’t do it then someone else will, which I get but I also do not get. Why not take the measures that twitter did? It makes it seem as if the ISIS members are the bulk of their clientele and if that’s the case they could be directly facilitating terrorism. I think there is more to this story and aspects the public does not know. Also, I am curious how the US Government entities are responding to the recruitment on Twitter. Why not fish these individual recruiters out. An undercover game to become recruited. Again, I’m sure they are doing this but not publicizing it. Great read!

  3. wfbagleyiii · ·

    What a terrifying but interesting issue. It’s been noted that ISIS has been so successful in part due to their digital communications efforts – social media marketing, etc. It makes me think of the question at the beginning of last class – do companies have a responsibility to their customers to safeguard the public. It’s a real Catch 22 and unfortunately, Durov makes a pretty astute point that terrorist groups, be it ISIS or others, will continue to use available platforms for their recruitment. I think to that end, he’s right. However, I would imagine it’s necessary to provide safety measures for these types of platforms to intervene when they detect any suspicious activity (go ahead and try defining that though!).

  4. ikechukwu_28 · ·

    Very interesting and relevant post. Social media is arguably the biggest reason why the Islamic State has been able to grow so rapidly. Its leaders adroitly use a host of platforms in order to convert people and get them to fight for their cause. It was interesting to learn how exactly IS uses social media to give off the vibe that they aren’t this is extremely violent group, but rather a family that one can join in order to feel like they have a place to belong in society.

  5. Wow thank you so much for this post. I knew online recruitment was major but I truly had no idea it was this much. It gives me chills to think about. When I read what you said about people including it in their twitter or instagram bios it made me sick to my stomach. How do these social platforms allow this to happen? I know its a freedom of speech thing, but that is NOT something positive to be promoting on your accounts. Especially their need to recruit Americans and to recruit women. I had no idea this was going on in such a strong light. Thank you for educating us on it.

  6. Tyler O'Neill · ·

    I really appreciate you delving into this issue! It’s incredibly insightful to learn about how ISIS approaches recruits. I am interested however to know how we’ve learned this information. I would assume that once we know how ISIS is recruiting, they are quick to change up their tactics. In response to the issue of letting ISIS communicate on Telegram, I don’t think its a large issue. As Durov mentions, ISIS will find another place where they can communicate with one another, and it’s quite possible it could be worse. On Telegram, at least, ISIS is simply talking amongst current members, not reaching out to recruit more. I hope that we are able to discuss this topic a bit further in class since it is so important and controversial!

  7. rohansuwarna · ·

    This is a really important topic which needs to be addressed. In my opinion, I feel like social media platforms need to police these actions. Since such recruitment messages and videos are a threat to national and global security, these companies need their securities division to take a stand. I feel like they will be more respected and applauded for prohibiting such acts from occurring. Not just Twitter, but Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat should take the initiative to protect their users from terrorist recruiting on their platforms.

  8. jagpalsingh03 · ·

    Awesome post! Topics like these make you realize just how ubiquitous social media has become and that there are many unfortunate drawbacks to being able to reach so many people. It’s fascinating how ISIS has been able to present the farce that its a community that gives disenfranchised and ostracized people a purpose in life. And knowing that, many leaders still continue to belittle and antagonize the Muslim community which just adds more fuel to the fire. On the issue with Telegram, I think I agree with creator Pavel. While it is far from ideal that ISIS is using the platform to communicate, Telegram doesn’t have to act. Their mission is “invisible communication” and they place the privacy of their users over everything else. Regardless, interesting topic and great post!

  9. It’s awful how they target these people that are often just unhappy and vulnerable young kids who just want to feel included in something. Donald Trump becoming the president certainly doesn’t add much comfort to the Muslim community which, like you said can be used to fuel their recruiting tactics even more. Personally, it really irks me that Puvel Durov is choosing to go about this the way that he is but that’s his choice. While I don’t agree with him, he’s not exactly wrong about being able to find alternative forms of communication either. I’ve read articles about ISIS using Playstation 4 gaming consoles to communicate amongst one another.

  10. Very interesting to see how ISIS uses these social platforms to leverage insecurities and vulnerabilities to drive recruiting. Had heard about this in the news, but learning more about the mechanics and platforms that they are leveraging.

    What do people feel is the role of the platform in these matters?

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