ISIS & Exploitation of Social Media

1409491566456.cachedToday, much of the fight to combat terrorism around the globe is waged online. Modern terrorist organizations have grown increasingly sophisticated in their use of digital tools to amass influence and further extremist agendas. Although use of the Internet to promote extremism has become ubiquitous amongst terrorist organizations, The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been particularly successful in exploiting digital tools to accelerate its growth into one of today’s largest and most dangerous terrorist networks.

ISIS was officially established in 1999, and since inception the group has made a deliberate effort to leverage digital channels to connect with a global audience. ISIS gathered an online following early on by publishing radical literature, video clips, and images to Jihadist forms and websites. In recent years, however, ISIS’s digital presence has exploded – posting a new and signficant threat to the Western world. The extremist group’s propaganda efforts has evolved to sophisticated promotional videos and literature coupled with tactical social media distribution across platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. ISIS has even gone so far as to establish a number of distinct media outlets responsible for targeting specific demographics. In an article published by VICE, author Olivia Becker comments “In addition to being one of the most brutal militant groups currently fighting in the Middle East, ISIS might also have the most elaborate public relations strategy.”

The creation and dissemination of extremist propaganda is geared towards two objectives: A) to inspire and promote potential recruits and B) to display power and growth to the West. ISIS vidisiseo propaganda is remarkably well produced, featuring everything from fighters handing out candy and ice cream to children, to scenes presenting advanced weapons, combat, damage inflicted by Western opposition. Although brutal content article-2664230-1EFB1DF900000578-334_634x337highlighting violence, murder, and torture is indeed a cornerstone to ISIS propaganda – that ‘genre’ makes up only a portion of ISIS’s content output. Other propaganda pushed by ISIS highlights happiness under the ISIS regime, significant military accomplishments, and general works of public good – aiming to appeal to a sense of identity, community, and religious obligation. Literature published online by ISIS includes religious pamphlets, extremist guidebooks, and a variety of online magazines. A report by the Quillian Foundation in 2015 found ISIS published an average of 38 new pieces of new content a day in a variety of different formats and languages.

Today the Islamic State is as much of a media conglomerate as a fighting force”          – Brendan Koerner, Wired Magazine

isis-1The distribution of ISIS propaganda is crowd sourced via a open network of ambassadors. ISIS provides trusted ‘Internet Jihadists’ with exclusive content to blast across their respective networks – creating a ripple effect that disseminates propaganda to targeted audiences around the globe. An ex-National Security Council Advisor in 2015 reported a “conservative” estimate of 90,000 pro-ISIS messages posted across social media platforms on a daily-basis. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are a few of the primary platforms exploited by ISIS ambassadors to reach the younger-millennial audience the propaganda is intended target. Once an ISIS ambassador has a candidate ‘on the hook’, the connection is moved to a private, encrypted messaging platform where the conversation elevates to discussing the process of fleeing to Syria or carrying-out a domestic attack.

ISIS’s recruitment efforts have proven dangerously effective. An estimated 25,000 people have traveled to Syria to enlist in ISIS since 2011, and the current fighting force is made up of individuals from over 100 different countries. An estimated 3,000 Europeans and over 250 Americans have attempted to flee to Syria to fight under the ISIS regime. In fact my home state of Minnesota leads the nation with the highest number of people who have attempted to flee America to fight for ISIS. Since 2014, nine young men in their late teens and early twenties have been arrested for plotting to join the ISIS regime in Syria. One of the young men, Abdirizak Warsame, was interviewed on 60 Minutes by Scott Pelley. In the segment Warsame adamantly spoke to the key role that ISIS propaganda videos and direct correspondence with ISIS affiliates via social media played in his desire to join ISIS. Pictured below is a guidebook that was distributed online to some of the young men arrested that details travel advice, suggestions on what to pack, and how to best avoid being caught by the authorities when fleeing to Syria.


Perhaps even more of a threat, however, is ISIS’s ability to inspire and direct ‘lone-wolf’ attacks in countries around the world. From 2015 to 2017, ISIS has been tied to dozens of terrorist’s attacks outside of Iraq and Syria, as depicted by the graph below from the New York Times:

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 8.19.44 PM

Given the grave threat of ISIS’s digital capabilities, taking out ISIS social media leaders has become top priority for the FBI and other national security agencies around the world. Additionally, tech companies including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Microsoft have joined the fight by forming a coalition in 2016 to combat the flow of terrorist content over the web, which has since resulted in a substantial decrease in the number of terrorist-affiliated accounts.

This post is in no way intended to glorify ISIS’s social media ‘strategy.’ It is intended to highlight how digital tools we use every day are being exploited for extremist aims.







  1. mollyshields44 · ·

    Really interesting post. I have heard plenty about ISIS recruiting members on social media but I did not know to the extent they put out content and utilized different platforms. I think that social media would be helpful for their recruiting efforts because they, along with any group or organization, can reach much further than the territory they inhabit and they can target specific people they believe would be good members. On the other side, by using social media they are giving law enforcement a little more insight into their world and it is often used, as you mentioned, to gain lead on people trying to join ISIS forces. I also think ISIS’ use of social media is an difficult delemia for the social media companies as it pushes the line between public safety, freedom of speech, and privacy. I recently read an article about how ISIS is changing some of their social media strategy to include a new app,Telegram, which is a similar no-cost, end-to-end encrypted messenger app like WhatsApp. It is widely used in both the Middle East and the West and is an example of how as technology and new forms of communication advances, ISIS is looking to utilize it to its group’s advantage. Thank you for bringing this issue to the class discuss. Social media is a great tool but as we see here, it is not always used for good.

  2. Really well-researched way to explain a rather complicated and tense topic. It’s really interesting how you pointed out that much of the ISIS propaganda is positive, showing the good sides of ISIS and what it does for communities. The pattern of providing exciting information -> discussing details in private -> providing “how-to” materials to take the last steps is very interesting. I wonder if this is a common recruiting pattern among other extremist groups. I watched a documentary on Scientology once and they also published nice and friendly propaganda, moved into more personal contacting, then enabled people to join the cult.

    The coalition of social media networks seems like a good idea, but I’m curious if/how banning ISIS on social media might play a role in that. Will the information still get out there, in a more nuanced way?

  3. mikeward7 · ·

    This is a really interesting post, Duffy. I was wondering if this subject would ever come up in class so I’m really glad I got to read your blog about it. Social media has benefitted our society in so many ways, but this is truly one of the extreme negatives that has come out of the digital revolution. These terrorist groups are now given the ability to connect with and spread their extremism across the world in ways they were never able to before and its greatly aiding their fight. It’s good to see that the government and social media companies are attempting to stop this but they are definitely going to be able to continue their propaganda.

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