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 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…”
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.
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.
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:
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?
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.