Going Viral: Combating ISIS on Its New Battlefield

By: Tina Huang, Columnist

Photo by: Wall Street Journal

As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is physically deteriorating, it is digitally strengthening. As of December 2017, ISIS has lost 98 percent of its territory in Syria and Iraq, forcing fighters to continue their movement online.[i] In fact, this past January there was a surge in ISIS’s media presence after three months of relatively low activity.[ii] ISIS harnesses the power of social media to spread its narratives across platforms, inspiring individuals to carry out attacks in their homelands.[iii] Tracing the evolution of ISIS’s Internet activity reveals that they are master adaptors, regularly discovering new mediums and readjusting in response to countermeasures. ISIS’s unprecedented capacity to weaponize the digital sphere poses a crucial national security threat to US practitioners, forced to navigate the relatively unchartered waters of combating an online enemy.

ISIS first discovered the power of Twitter in 2014 when they used the platform to announce their invasion of northern Iraq with the hashtag #AllEyesOnISIS.[iv] Suddenly, the group was able to update followers about its advancements on the ground at such a rapid pace that it was difficult for news media to differentiate truth from fabrication.[v] ISIS’s ability to communicate with its followers in real time was a phenomenon that governments and tech companies around the world were ill-equipped to handle. As a result, ISIS exploited Twitter to directly recruit and connect with sympathizers worldwide. The group began disseminating captivating content such as photos of victorious soldiers on the battlefield, comedic memes taunting the U.S., and messages glorifying the group’s ideology.[vi] By December 2014, Twitter was home to at least 46,000 accounts belonging to ISIS sympathizers, each averaging around 1,000 followers.[vii] Shortly thereafter, Western nations began experiencing a sudden spike in Islamic inspired extremism. The U.S. alone saw an 180 percent increase of Americans motivated by Islamic extremism from 2014 to 2015.[viii]

Outcries demanding that Twitter take down ISIS related accounts prompted the removal of 360,000 ISIS-related accounts for content violations by August 2016.[ix] The removal of such accounts required Twitter, a company that prides itself in allowing its users to exercise their freedom of expression, to reevaluate its policies that state “users may not make threats of violence or promote violence, including threatening or promoting terrorism.”[x] The issue comes in defining what constitutes “promoting terrorism” versus freedom of expression. Is there a clear line between a tweet calling for attacks around the world and a tweet with a link to ISIS propaganda that does not explicitly call for its followers to commit violence? Suddenly, private companies are finding themselves responsible for combating violent extremism online. This also presents an array of challenges for US policymakers, including the difficulty of regulating content hosted by private technology companies’ platforms and Washington’s failure to develop a coherent policy or strategy for countering violent extremism in the digital sphere.

Despite these concerns, ISIS’s Twitter activity noticeably decreased with each wave of content removal.[xi] But this success should not be taken at face value. First, the frozen Twitter accounts were considered honorable and a sign of legitimacy within the online, ISIS-supporting echo chamber. Usually another account would be created within hours, using the same handle with slight variations.[xii] Second, ISIS supporters shifted to other mediums, particularly the encrypted messaging application Telegram. In the summer of 2017, George Washington University’s Program on Extremism (POE) released a report analyzing 397 ISIS channels on the application.[xiii] Of those channels, 80.4 percent were private, requiring an invite to participate. Several months later, researchers found 604 channels, only 63.2 percent of which required an invitation.[xiv] This change indicates that despite Twitter’s efforts to push ISIS off of its platform, the group easily found safe haven in Telegram’s encrypted space, demonstrating ISIS’s ability to swiftly adapt and improve its ability to exploit the digital space.

The increasing presence and accessibility to ISIS content on Telegram led several countries to ban the application. In July 2017, for example, Indonesia–home to millions of Telegram users–banned the application due to the presence of terrorism-related content. In response, Pavel Durov, the CEO and founder of Telegram, issued a statement asserting that “Telegram [Terms of Service] prohibit publicly promoting violence in any form,” stressing that Telegram “blocked over 8,500 channels related to terrorism” because “actions that can harm innocent people are not OK.”[xv] Regardless of these actions, the POE reports indicate a growing ISIS presence on the application, suggesting that Telegram is either inept at removing terrorist content or that ISIS’s ability to recreate channels can be conducted at a much faster pace than Telegram’s ability to remove them. Additionally, it is likely that the mass removal of ISIS channels encourages the group to develop mechanisms to quickly regenerate its network in anticipation of being deleted.

Today, ISIS maintains a presence on Twitter, Telegram, and other social media platforms. This clearly reveals the group’s resilience and its ability to continue spreading its narrative in the face of continued and concerted efforts to disrupt and degrade their online networks. ISIS capitalizes on these different platforms to inspire its supporters around the world to carry out attacks in their homelands. Limiting their digital space only temporarily sets them back as they regroup and identify more friendly and permissive platforms. Eliminating ISIS’s safe havens on the ground is the relatively easy battle. Defeating ISIS in the digital arena will be one of the greatest national security challenges the U.S. will face, as eliminating all safe spaces in every dark corner of the Internet will likely prove a Sisyphean task.




[i] Jamie McInyre, “Here’s How Much Land ISIS Has Lost Since Trump Took Over,” Washington Examiner, December 23, 2017, http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/heres-how-much-ground-isis-has-lost-since-trump-took-over/article/2644137

[ii] “IS Media Show Signs of Recovery After Sharp Decline,” BBC, February 23, 2018 https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c1dov471

[iii] Emerson T. Brooking and P.W. Singer “War Goes Viral,” The Atlantic, November 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/11/war-goes-viral/501125/

[iv] Shiraz Maher and Joseph Carter, “Analyzing the ISIS ‘Twitter Storm’,” War on the Rocks, June 24, 2014, https://warontherocks.com/2014/06/analyzing-the-isis-twitter-storm/

[v] Brooking, “War Goes Viral.”

[vi] Program on Extremism, “Inside the ISIS U.S. Echo Chamber,” December 2015, https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/extremism.gwu.edu/files/downloads/IIA%20Echo%20Chamber.pdf

[vii] J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan, “The ISIS Twitter Census: Defining and Describing the Population of ISIS Supporters on Twitter,” The Brookings Institution, March 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/isis_twitter_census_berger_morgan.pdf

[viii] “The ISIS Impact on the Domestic Islamic Extremist Threat,” The Anti-Defamation League, 2016 https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/CR_4473_HomegrownExtremismReport-2009-2015_web2.pdf

[ix] Reuters, “Twitter Shuts Down 360,000 Accounts for Links to Terrorism,” Newsweek, August 18, 2016, http://www.newsweek.com/twitter-islamic-state-360000-isis-accounts-terrorism-al-qaeda-491568

[x] Julia Greenberg, “Why Facebook and Twitter Can’t Just Wipe Out ISIS Online,” Wired, November 21, 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/11/facebook-and-twitter-face-tough-choices-as-isis-exploits-social-media/

[xi] Audrey Alexander, “Digital Decay? Tracing Change Over Time Among English-Language Islamic State Sympathizers on Twitter,” Program on Extremism, October 2017, https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/extremism.gwu.edu/files/DigitalDecayFinal_0.pdf

[xii] Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes, “ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa,” Program on Extremism, December 2015, https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/extremism.gwu.edu/files/downloads/ISIS%20in%20America%20-%20Full%20Report.pdf

[xiii] “Telegram Tracker,” The George Washington Program on Extremism, Summer 2017, https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/extremism.gwu.edu/files/Telegram%20Tracker%20Summer%202017.pdf

[xiv] “Telegram Tracker,” The George Washington Program on Extremism, Fall 2017, https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/extremism.gwu.edu/files/Telegram%20Tracker%20Fall%202017%20%285%29.pdf

[xv] Pavel Durov, “Telegram and the Freedom of Speech,” October 29, 2017, http://telegra.ph/Telegram-and-Freedom-of-Speech-10-29

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