U.S. Government Trying to Counter ISIL ‘Twitter Consensus’

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
The Islamic State has proven itself to be a social media juggernaut. Supporters and members of the terrorist organization post to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media accounts hundreds of thousands of times a week. Subsequently, millions of eyeballs see the group’s propaganda multiple times a day.

Experts say the Islamic State — which is also known as ISIL or ISIS — has an acute understanding of how to use social media to its benefit, cultivating relationships with supporters around the globe and recruiting them to fight in Iraq or Syria, or even coordinate attacks in their home countries.

The U.S. government and allied nations around the world are working to counter the group’s propaganda, but some experts worry that it is not enough.

ISIL has thousands of members that not only fight on the ground, but on the internet as well, said Daniel Cohen, coordinator of the military and strategic affairs and cyber warfare programs at the Institute for National Security Studies.

Over the past year, ISIL has created dozens of media centers. These facilities pump out thousands of pieces of propaganda that target various demographics, he said.

“Every video that they produce has a targeted audience, and they decide exactly to who they want to translate it to,” Cohen said during a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Some videos are translated into 14 different languages.

ISIL is also planning to open its own television station, which will broadcast videos and images 24 hours a day, he said.

Most of ISIL’s propaganda focuses on trying to make the terror organization seem normal or part of a burgeoning community, Cohen noted. Some images show members eating bananas with Nutella or playing Call of Duty.

“Most of the pictures by ISIS are not … [of] a fighter holding a gun, it’s more about eating couscous or hummus,” he said. ISIL is “trying to show that it’s a normal life. … They’re trying to show that life continues even if everyone is against them.”

Countering ISIL’s message on social media will be critical to stopping its momentum, but there are not enough resources to completely stop the flow, he said.

“We need to find a way to … shut down the narrative they are trying to show and fight them in the same fight, in the social media battle,” he said. “We’re trying to do it, but it’s only a start.”

The United States has emerged as one of the leaders in stymieing ISIL’s message. During the White House’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February, the government announced new initiatives to stop the group’s dominance online.

“The U.S. government, in partnership with foreign governments, civil society and the private sector, is working to weaken the legitimacy and resonance of violent extremist messaging and narratives, including through social media,” a White House fact sheet said.

Initiatives include partnering with the United Arab Emirates to create a “digital communications hub” that will work to counter ISIL’s propaganda and recruitment efforts.

The government is also tapping into two groups that are experts in social media: university students and social media companies themselves.

The State Department is establishing a “Peer-to-Peer Challenge” where university students throughout the United States, Canada, North Africa, Middle East, Europe, Australia and Asia create digital media that contrasts with the terror group’s messages.

Additionally, the White House will partner with the private sector to create technology camps where “social media companies will work with governments, civil society and religious leaders to develop digital content that discredits violent extremist narratives and amplifies positive alternatives.”

It has been difficult for governments to compete with ISIL’s social media strategy because they are bureaucratic by nature, said Colin Clarke, a RAND Corp. associate political analyst who researches ISIL. These governments have been “perplexed” by how a group with old ideologies can compete with them, but ISIL is adaptive and nimble, he said.

He suggested that the government work more closely with the private sector and team up with advertising agencies — whose entire purpose is to sway individuals to buy their products — to craft its message. An alliance with Madison Avenue could help government agencies more meaningfully disseminate information.

It is worth “picking their brains,” he said. “What are the best practices from the marketing and advertising world?”

The State Department has so far led the U.S. government’s efforts at directly countering ISIL’s message on the internet. Under the department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications — which was established in 2011 under President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13584 — officials post messages on social media pages dissuading potential-ISIL members from joining the terror group. Media produced by the CSCC include video and photography.

“The digital outreach team actively and openly engages in Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali to counter terrorist propaganda and misinformation about the United States across a wide variety of interactive digital environments that had previously been ceded to extremists,” said the CSCC’s website.

Rashad Hussain, the former special envoy to the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, took the helm of the CSCC in February.

Thomas Sanderson, co-director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ transnational threats project, said while the CSCC is doing good work, ISIL is an enormous challenge. He noted that some experts have estimated that the organization’s supporters post to social media accounts 90,000 times a day.

“I guarantee you that we are not moving fast enough nor do we have enough resources going against what is an extremely widespread, dynamic, well-funded social media campaign on the side of ISIS,” he said.

Officials working in the office are talented, but when the CSCC began, they were “swimming” through bureaucracy, he said. That made it difficult to carry out the mission, he noted.

Initially, the organization focused on al-Qaida. Now with ISIL, there is the necessary momentum but the government is still ill equipped to deal with the sheer size of the terrorist group, he said.

Another obstacle is that the State Department has to be very cautious before it sends out any counter-ISIL messages, sometimes slowing the process down. Such messages must be thoroughly vetted, while ISIL is able to rapidly send out propaganda without any consideration to accuracy or impact.

“You’ve got to have some control over it, but we’re … going against an exceptionally adaptable and nimble opponent that doesn’t have to do the same thing,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we have to abandon our controls and legal concerns and what not, but there’s got to be a way to improve.”

One benefit of ISIL propaganda is that it gives intelligence organizations a wealth of data to sift through, Sanderson said. This can often lead officials to ISIL members or help them identify potential supporters. It can even help foil potential military offensives or attacks.

“One of the few great facets of this counterterrorism effort is that the bad guys tell us what they want to do,” he said. “That information is out there for the taking. They absolutely say what they intend to do, how they’re going to do it, why they’re doing it.”

ISIL does realize that its postings are being watched, Sanderson said. The group recently warned its members to be more cautious about what they post and not give away too much information, such as location coordinates, as some members have done in the past.

“They are a little bit more careful than they were before,” he said. Before “it was absolutely an unrestrained, uncontrolled, massive distribution of images and commentary about the battlefield. Now I think they are more restrained because they recognize though it remains an advantage for them … it can also be used against them.”

Clarke agreed that there is a benefit to the terror group’s rampant use of social media platforms, which provides open-source intelligence. He compared it to the devil-you-know versus the devil-you-don’t-know.

Agencies monitoring ISIL are learning more about how it operates, how it gains financing and how it recruits members because of this abundance of information. Many of the group’s members are young millennials, who as a group tend to over share, Clarke said.

He noted that ISIL’s momentum is stalling, despite how much propaganda it pushes out. “The picture isn’t as rosy” as it was last summer for those considering joining the group’s ranks, he said.

A recently released Brookings Institute report titled, “The ISIS Twitter Consensus,” found that from September to December 2014, supporters of the terrorist organization used at least 46,000 Twitter accounts.

The study found that most of these users were based in Syria and Iraq, and hundreds of them sent tweets that included location metadata. Additionally, these accounts had amplified reach, as most had a higher than average Twitter follower count at about 1,000 each.

“Much of ISIS’ social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume,” the report said.

A group of just 50 users would tweet 18,425 times per day on average, it said.

Nearly one in five of the supporters selected English as their primary language, the report found. Three quarters used Arabic.

The authors of the study, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan, also found that Twitter shut down at least 1,000 ISIL-supporting accounts between September and December 2014.

“Account suspensions do have concrete effects in limiting the reach and scope of ISIS activities on social media. They do not, at the current level of implementation, eliminate those activities and cannot be expected to do this,” the report said. 

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Cyber, Cybersecurity

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