Can ISIS’ Digital Strategy Be Turned Against It?

Government agencies such as the CIA, which started this fake ISIS Twitter feed, are struggling to counter ISIS online.

The latest video released by the so-called Islamic State on Sunday showed the aftermath of the beheading of a fifth Western hostage, aid worker Peter Kassig. Apparently less choreographed and more rushed than the group’s previous video portrayals, it represents yet another gruesome piece of propaganda that has grabbed the world’s attention once more.

Since it broke from al-Qaeda in February 2014, ISIS has taken the idea of digital jihad to a whole new level. By bringing its message out of the traditional extremist haven of password-protected online forums, beyond al-Qaeda’s hour-long video sermons, and into the mainstream of social media, the group is reaching new recruits from Denver to Dushanbe and contributing to the unprecedented number of foreign fighters in Syria.

Addressing the void of governance and security in Syrian communities and the deep sectarian resentment in Iraq should be front and center in any multifaceted response to ISIS. But as 15,000 foreign fighters from more than 80 countries flock to Iraq and Syria—looking for a cause to identify with, a group to belong to, or a way to channel their grievances—undermining ISIS’ ideology and its online myth-making machine should also be part of the strategy.

Given its digital prowess, ISIS does not need to physically reach the West, as al-Qaeda did, to create a spectacle of violence that instills fear in populations thousands of miles away and rallies foreign fighters to its cause. The group’s most infamous videos in the West are those depicting the brutal beheadings of American and British hostages. These have arguably succeeded in striking terror in as many Americans hearts and minds as possible: a recent survey showed that 94 percent of Americans were aware of the group’s first video of a public beheading, that of journalist James Foley.

The video’s understandably emotional effect on such a large audience in turn helped trigger renewed military engagement in Iraq and new interventions in Syria on the part of the United States and its allies—precisely the kind of violent response that feeds into the terrorists’ narrative of external repression.

ISIS’ digital strategy also differentiates between its online audiences, delivering tailored messages to specific groups. Targeting potential recruits, tech-savvy multilingual supporters photoshop motivational images and post them on Twitter to depict the apparently positive elements of life in the “caliphate.” Meanwhile, a core group of professional filmmakers create slick high-definition productions for the group’s Al Hayat Media Center, glorifying ISIS fighters and their apparent humanity as they help their injured colleagues and give candy to children.

For those in the West unlikely to heed the call to jihad but skeptical of their own governments’ interventions nonetheless, the group’s video propaganda series “Lend Me Your Ears” features kidnapped British journalist John Cantlie acting as an anchorman in an ostensibly objective news show, or more recently reporting as a correspondent from ISIS-held territory in the Syrian city of Kobane. Though acting under duress, Cantlie relays the extremist group’s anti-Western narrative in a calm, coherent manner and with an educated British accent. He quotes selectively from Western news articles in a way that appears to bolster ISIS’ stature, while his orange jumpsuit reminds viewers of US offenses in Guantanamo Bay. Each video’s professional lighting and crisp editing add authority to the message—the high-end production is designed to win hearts and minds in the West in a medium that resonates. It doesn’t matter that ISIS and its remaining hostages are halfway around the world.

Finally, ISIS uses a sophisticated social media strategy to punch above its weight. The group’s Arabic-language Twitter app, The Dawn of Glad Tidings, keeps supporters informed about ISIS’ activities. Once downloaded, the app also posts tweets to the accounts of everyone who has signed up—posting as many as 40,000 tweets in one day. Twitter-bots and organized hashtag campaigns are also used to boost the group’s presence online. This not only ensures that its propaganda materials reach a wide audience, it further gives the impression that ISIS is far more popular—and powerful—than it actually is. Some fighters defending their cities from ISIS in Iraq have reportedly laid down their arms before the group’s arrival; the specter of brutality amplified online also helps the group win battles in the field.

ISIS is now widely thought to be the most successful recruiter of foreign fighters among all of the radicalized groups competing for power in Syria and Iraq, and its online myth-making has helped to spread its ideology while forming the basis for this international recruitment drive.

Its innovative approach to communication technologies is eclipsing that of other jihadist groups in terms of its scope, reach, and sophistication. Nonetheless, the digital landscape also offers openings for those seeking to respond to this extremist threat.

First, social media is a double-edged sword for ISIS, since the digital paper trail leaves clues that can be used to inform a response. For example, from the video signaling Kassig’s death, European officials were able to garner new details about the group’s whereabouts and identify militants who are British and French citizens.

Second, the prolific online presence also exposes vulnerabilities in ISIS’ messaging. As the central command allows its diffuse network of fighters and supporters to influence its digital identity, the result is often conflicting messages to a global audience online. ISIS’ rifts with other jihadist groups also play out visibly—and sometimes embarrassingly—in the digital realm. These cleavages and contradictions could be exploited to undermine the group’s authority and its extremist narrative.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, online de-radicalization strategies can help to counter ISIS by engaging with populations that are vulnerable to recruitment. The US State Department has taken initial steps with digital de-radicalization strategies through its English-language social media campaign Think Again, Turn Away. European government officials also met with representatives of Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook in October to start considering options. But online initiatives of this kind have so far received trivial attention and investment relative to the blinding focus on military tactics.

Digital de-radicalization initiatives need not—and perhaps should not—be the sole preserve of the governments leading the physical attack against ISIS. For one, governments’ discussions with technology companies have tended to focus more on blocking content than strategies for de-radicalization, and they are hampered by the tensions around demands to access terror suspects’ accounts and hand over more user data than technology companies appear comfortable with in the post-Snowden era.

In addition, since this is a battle of ideology and legitimacy playing out in both the digital and the real world, the most effective and engaging counternarratives are likely to be those led by individuals and organizations within at-risk communities, and even former extremists themselves. An animated video series created by a former extremist in the UK, for example, acknowledges the discontent among Muslim youths while attempting to reverse the radicalization process within the context of the teachings of Islam.

Ultimately, a number of partners will be needed to help create and support the virtual space for a counternarrative to ISIS’ ideology as well as specific digital tools—not least technology companies who are otherwise struggling to deal with ISIS’ prolific digital output. To deny ISIS the support it needs and to stem the growth of a new extremist diaspora far beyond Iraq and Syria, a military strategy will not be enough.