ISIS: Social Media PSYOPS
… online media efforts may also include fabricated stories. Examples cited are plans to destroy Mecca, an ISIS/IS member marrying a 6 year old girl, and an edict involving forced female circumcision. All these items have made the rounds on a number of anti-Jihad blogs/websites.
Hashem contends that ISIS/IS has no qualms in committing and publicizing horrific acts, but implies online media efforts may also include fabricated stories. Examples cited are plans to destroy Mecca, an ISIS/IS member marrying a 6 year old girl, and an edict involving forced female circumcision. All these stories have made the rounds on a number of anti-Jihad blogs/websites. Hashem states:
With this piece, I do not intend to defend IS or attempt to crystallize its image. The group is expressing itself without any fear through its websites and social media accounts by showing beheadings as they happen and openly acknowledging their stances and activities. In fact, the Islamic State’s media strategy, through its online social media posts and publications, highlights the group’s intention to scare all its enemies, a strategy that aims at defeating the opponent without shooting a bullet, for no one wants to be slaughtered with a sword or knife while hearing the cheers of dozens or hundreds of extremists.
ISIS/IS is frequently described as simply an offshoot of al-Qaeda that has simply gained an advantage by using captured U.S. weapons. This view overlooks how effectively ISIS/IS has been in using and manipulating social media as part of an orchestrated psychological operations (PSYOP) campaign:
The Islamic State’s strategy has already succeeded in Iraq and several parts of Syria, and the fabrication of horror stories about its activities win IS further ground. Its online and print media organization is efficient. Each online network such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have designated moderators, and each “wilayah” (state) has its own dedicated social media accounts, with Ninevah state, for instance, only posting news from that area. In addition to the official IS social media accounts, there are hundreds of private accounts of individuals who are followed by thousands of Internet users. Both help spread the organization’s propaganda message — those aimed at its enemies or those meant to attract supporters and recruits. All of the Islamic State’s productions fall under the main umbrella of “Al-Furqan Media,” which regularly posts videos and audio recordings and produces a documentary-style series under the title “Messages from the Land of Epic Battles.” Interestingly, another media organization associated with IS, “Fursan Al-Balagh Media,” works on video transcriptions, giving viewers the chance to both read and watch all productions.
For most of the west, social media coverage of ISIS/IS has been limited to activity in Syria and Iraq. This changed in August 2014 as Hashem points out:
On Aug. 9, a photo showing an image of the IS flag displayed on a smartphone in front of the White House was tweeted from pro-IS Twitter handle @sunna_rev. The image reflected a trend by followers and supporters of the self-styled state to say they are everywhere, even at the White House. The tweet came under the hashtag #AmessagefromISIStoUS that attracted dozens of tweets by pro- and anti-IS Twitter users. On Aug. 18, a YouTube video titled “A message to the American People” was posted by Al-Miqdam Productions showing pictures of coffins covered with the US flag with a caption reading, “This is what will happen to you in any place you are, if aircraft bomb the mujahedeen.” (YouTube quickly removed the video, saying it violated the website’s policy against violence.)
The flag photo incident was effective enough to be reported by the major news networks. Today (8/20/2014) ISIS/IS has been using social media to report/promote the beheading of U.S. Freelance journalist James Foley and provided a video.
COMMENT/ANALYSIS: As ISIS/IS attracts supporters/recruits from western nations, it gains a pool of social media savvy users. This is an extremely valuable resource in implementing the strategy outlined in Hashem’s column. A growing number of western society obtains/forms opinions based on what is read through social media such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.. These services, by their nature, provide unfiltered outlets for information. With the Foley killing, mainstream news outlets have been repeated saying they will not show the video. This statement tends to encourage viewers, out of morbid curiosity, to search the internet to find the video produced by ISIS/IS – drawing an audience.
Properly leveraged, social media offers a significant psychological tool in framing opinions/perceptions of a vast and growing audience. ISIS/IS apparently understands this, working it to its advantage.
Additional question to be asked: Is the story that even al-Qaeda found ISIS to be too extreme simply part of the ‘scare all enemies” strategy?