ISIS Media Campaign

The Background:

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, commonly referred to as ISIS, has been prevalent in media since 2011, when President Obama ordered that troops be removed from Iraq. However, the group originated in 1999 as one of the many Jihadist groups that arose to follow Al Qaeda. This group joined forces with several other Jihad groups, declaring itself a self-declared caliphate in late 2006. It originated as the Islamic State of Iraq and Libya, but is now more commonly referred to as the Islamic State. Though the success of the group can be attributed to many variables, including their location and economic wealth, what makes this group unique is its extremely successful media campaign. In this project I will analyze the different angles of this campaign in relation to their overall success in the recruitment of ISIS’s members. Though I am personally against ISIS and their initiatives, I will attempt to focus my analysis on the factual effectiveness of the campaign, placing my own opinions aside. ISIS’ recruitment campaign spreads to many different type of media, including videos, a magazine, a Facebook fan page, and several different twitter accounts. I will focus on its most effective media campaign: Twitter, and reflect on the still-existing effectiveness of one of its least popular attempts: the magazine.

The Magazine: IS Report

The ISIS Report is a magazine clearly directed toward westerners, as most of its contents are written in English. It states its intent very clearly when describing itself as “Propagating.” This propaganda is effective in its appeal, because most of the issue focuses on the religious ideals of the state:

“Spreading Islamic knowledge, correcting the people’s understanding of the religion, and clarifying the truth are all among the most important goals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Shaam (Syria). For this reason, the scholars and du’aat of the Islamic State have made a concerted effort to clarify the methodology of truth, which the prophet Muhammad came with. They did so by holding educational seminars, opening institutes for Islamic studies, and running da’wah tents. All this in order to clarify the fundamental truth on account of which the heavens and the earth were established, for which the Messengers were sent, and which many men have fought to establish, proving truthful to their covenant with Allah. This fundamental truth is Tawheed – worshipping none but Allah, may he be glorified…”

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This article is the opening message of this issue, which is the premier issue for the magazine. The emphasis on the religious efforts of ISIS is an intelligent tactic to give the group a positive connotation initially. For the westerner completely new to the ideals of ISIS, opening its message in this way forces the reader to keep and open mind. Further, though manipulative, the purpose described in this passage is completely opinionated and therefore cannot be effectively fact-checked. Rather than turn away curious readers with the truth about the actions of ISIS, the group was left with one of two options. They could be honest and upfront about the actions, detailing the mass-killings and beheadings. They could lie, and attempt to uphold a non-violent front, despite the open media regarding their acts of violence. Both methods have potential negative effects. To be honest about the violence ISIS used to promote its agenda would only attract seasoned terrorists, not the American and European target audience it desires. To completely lie about the actions of ISIS would be difficult albeit ineffective with the lack of censorship in modern-day media. With these two options, success for ISIS recruitment looked ominous. In assessing the barriers ISIS was forced to push past in order to achieve positive reception by westerners, ISIS was quite ingenious in how they moved forward. This magazine clearly portrays the timeline of their methodology. First, a focus on religion gives a sense of immunity to the group. Second, having total control of their media outlets allowed the group to reveal only the parts of the organization that they so chose. As the magazine progresses, on to the 3rd and 4th editions, ISIS conditions its audience to slowly but surely view and accept the violence they use to promote their message.

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The Tweets:

ISIS’s twitter activity is arguably its most successful media campaign. The initial release of the beheadings, though shocking, established the famous reputation of ISIS as a ruthless and powerful terrorist organization. Though crass, from a strictly public relations standpoint, these videos were extremely effective in drawing attention to the organization. The videos immediately became popular, and spurred such trending hash-tags such as #ISIL or #beheadings. Online traffic increased so drastically on twitter, with re-tweets by both horrified and intrigued Americans, that twitter CEO Dick Costolo quickly reacted to the beheadings, forcefully removing them from the website in twitter’s first act of user editing. (ISIS militants immediately followed up with death threats to the CEO) The videos were impressively shot, showing the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The propagandists involved in creating the videos and images did so clearly to enlist a new tactic as far as recruiting members: graphic violence. This tactic proved effective as the hashtag still exists as trending on twitter.  It has also spurred some radical fan followings, with many European and American twitters created in dedication to ISIS. The group also advanced a new intended outcome for their campaign: the goal of gaining American involvement. As I stated before, ISIS was founded in 1999, but U.S. retaliation was not openly considered until the United States Administration was harassed by the outcry of horrified Americans. Less than a month after ISIS popularity on Twitter, President Obama announced official steps to fight the terrorist organization. His plan involved steps so drastic as to begin airstrikes in Syria. The beheading videos and imagery clearly catalyzed U.S. involvement against ISIS. Beyond the videos, ISIS has also shown its technologically savvy propagandizing by creating its own app for twitter.

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Though Twitter warns against the app as being “potentially harming,” once followed, the app updates the user as to the current events, tweets, hashtags, and press releases of the group. They effectively bundled all of their social media outlets and made them available through twitter, which has gained ISIS the most attention.

United States Retaliation:

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The United States has been particularly disappointing in their retaliation toward ISIS’ media efforts. Their campaign “Think Again Turn Away,” has produced a Twitter and a Facebook page in efforts to deflect the damage done by ISIS social media. The campaign is run by the United States Department of State, and seems to attempt to level with the common twitter demographic; the millennial generation. The twitter consists mostly of re-tweets, many of the lacking in professionalism and grammar. I’ve attached some of the least effective tweets below. The numbers reflect the failure of this initiative. On Twitter, the “Think Again Turn Away” page has only 13,000 followers, and the Facebook page has around 8,500. The Facebook page displays outdated graphics and shared news articles that consist of anti-ISIS commentary. The initiative began in 2011, when ISIS efforts became a concern for national security. However, the “Think Again Turn Away” initiative still continues its efforts to demean ISIS. Unfortunately, the sarcastic nature of the group, especially in its YouTube videos and tweets, has been potentially more harmful to U.S. efforts, causing some to view the initiative as tactless and juvenile.

Exactly how effective was ISIS’ media campaign, and why?

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ISIS has gained a predicted 3,000 followers from Europe alone. Whether or not the rise in followers can be completely attributed to the ISIS media campaign is debatable. When asked how social media affected ISIS recruitment, University of Utah Professor Peter von Sivers, an expert in the behavioral patterns of terrorist organizations, responded with resolve that the support would’ve existed with or without the media. It’s certainly supported through evidence that ISIS’ power comes from many other methods, especially their involvement in the oil industry. Still, the media campaign was effectively and efficiently executed, and drew worldwide attention. ISIS calls to attract diverse types, such as “engineers, we need doctors, …professionals In analyzing the psychology used to draw people to join terrorist organizations, University of Massachusetts Psychologist John Hogan describes the success of ISIS:

“Very often we see radicals decide they want to become a terrorist turn away at the last-minute, but the message hit the nail on the head, which is to say there is a road for everyone. It makes radicalization and recruitment much easier. It is an equal opportunity organization. It has everything from the sadistic psychopath to the humanitarian to the idealistic driven.”

The organization, though one I personally do not support, is a pristine axample of effective media usage in mass communication. Through expert tactics and utilization of modern digital media, this terrorist group has been able to sell its extremely undesirable products: mass murder and violence.

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About skenn24

I love language and I love theatre. I know I'll never be the best at either of those, but that certainly won't stop me from trying.

11 thoughts on “ISIS Media Campaign

  1. This was such an interesting read! I did have this in mind while reading: do you think that this organization would be as subversive and popular without its social media campaign?

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    1. @ericachristiee

      Hi! I know that currently (specifically in response to death threat and hostility from ISIS and others) Twitter officials stick to the defense that their user editing is all under the conditions stated in their user agreements. I’d have to do some more investigating to determine if that is true, but in my research I definitely noted the still-existent pro-ISIS twitter accounts. I believe that this definitely sets a precedent in the implementation of User Agreements as means for excusing user editing on social media, although it can be argued that this is one of Twitter’s most widespread actions in editing or deleting accounts. Here’s an article presenting the argument that perhaps Twitter wasn’t quite as editing as it initially seemed.

      http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/twitter-isis-war-ban-speech

      Thank you for the comment!

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  2. @kcham18

    Thank you!

    I think that question is extremely debatable. (Which makes it all the more exciting to answer) I went to a lecture done by a University of Utah associate professor, Peter von Sivers on the origins of ISIS. While there, he was asked the same question, and Proffessor Sivers believed that ISIS support would’ve existed with or without this social media campaign. Personally, though, I believe that this campaign has two purposes: to recruit western support, and as bait. ISIS utilized cheap and effective advertising of their brutalities as a kind of taunt to the U.S. and European governments, calling them to act against their terrorist group. I believe it effectively achieved this purpose, with a gain of thousands of European followers, and a gain of U.S. and European involvement in airstrikes and other offensive operations. Though not many know U.S. citizens have joined the group, the FBI is actually using social media to track potential Jihadists. I’d say that if ISIS is powerful enough to push the FBI to creep twitter, then surely ISIS must be on to something potentially dangerous, and highly effective.

    Here’s a link to the story about the FBI’s “trolling:” http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/no-lol-matter-fbi-trolls-social-media-would-be-jihadis-n226841

    Thank’s for reading and thank you for the question!

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  3. Sam, this was a very interesting topic to analyze! I’ve read some coverage of ISIS’ activity, but not to the extent that I probably should. You said the magazine is the organization’s least successful media component. How is the magazine distributed? Is it a subscription only publication? Do you have any distribution numbers for the United States and the U.K.?

    Also, how do you think the U.S. can improve its social media retaliation campaign?

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  4. This was very interesting to read. I honestly had no clue that ISIS even had a social media presence until I read this. I did, however, read an interesting article about two teenage girls who devoted their lives to ISIS. ( http://nypost.com/2014/10/10/pregnant-teen-girls-who-joined-isis-weve-made-a-huge-mistake/ )
    As I’ve never seen any media or propaganda for or against ISIS, I’m wondering how successful these attempts were. Since nearly 3000 Europeans began to follow them, it must be somewhat affective. Does the U.S. just do a better job at shielding their media?

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  5. Hey Sam! I enjoyed reading your project. The whole ISIS Twitter campaign fascinates me. Although, before this semester, I had never heard of ISIS or their efforts. You said they’ve existed since 1999. Were they jettisoned to notoriety this year simply because of the beheadings of the journalists? Or was their violence prominent before then? Maybe I just live under a rock. Also, do you agree with the professor that they would have their established following with or without their successful media campaigns? Thanks!

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  6. This report is really well done! It definitely provided information that I had not heard before and definitely raised some questions. First, do you think that had twitter not edited out the beheadings, ISIS would have died down as does any other trending hashtag? Was it the removal of the material or the material itself that made it so popular? Second, have many americans joined ISIS cause because of the beheadings? It seem strange to me that Americans would be ready to associate themselves with someone so willing to behead one of their own. Lastly, personally, do you think ISIS is done with their social media campaign or was this just the start?

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    1. Hey Lauren! Firstly, thanks for reading my piece! I think that twitter editing was necessary for the peace of the families of those in the videos, and to avoid mass panic in the public. However, I’m not sure it did much to alleviate the “trendiness” of ISIS. If anything, the hashtag continues more vehemently as ever, perhaps aided by the scandal just as teens are driven to participate in underage drinking simply because it is an easily broken rule, and people like to break rules. As far as American movement, Jihadists have not made much significant progress in drawing out American followers, though the campaign has been extremely successful in other western countries. Lastly, personally, I feel that this is just the start. The campaign has so far gained ISIS exactly what they wished for, followers and attention. If a method tends to work for them, I doubt they have any plans to end it. Thanks again Lauren!

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  7. Hello, Sam! I have heard about the censorship in social media with regard to ISIS many times, and reading your project on this topic was a great way to gain some knowledge and statistics on the issue. I personally think censorship of Twitter is golden. I remember when the beheading of our journalist went viral in US news, and I was so afraid that my younger brother or vulnerable citizens would see the video of the beheading. I’m pleased that efforts were made to censor the video in order to protect viewers. I found an interesting article regarding Ferguson riots as a Segway into more easily-executable ISIS social media censorship riots.

    http://www.hstoday.us/briefings/daily-news-analysis/single-article/isis-supporters-on-twitter-call-to-use-ferguson-protests-as-cover-for-lone-wolf-attacks/3468c1258120be8f37b40a04426be058.html

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  8. I find it sad that it takes so much for us to recognize this terrorist group as a threat. Without social media, the beheadings may have gone unnoticed. It’s strange in this case that terrorist groups want to be known for committing these crimes rather than keep it secret from law enforcement. The fact that religion is the main focus in the ISIS magazine makes sense, because people are willing to do ridiculous things for their religion. I found something online that relates the tactics used by ISIS to Hitler Youth. It is scary that teens can be brainwashed in these cases. In the video, a son tells his mother “It is Jihad, and I must do it.”

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