ISIS uses social medial tools to take territory, gain power, spread its influence, recruit new fighters, advance its propaganda, and create a myth that it is indomitable. They film their butchery using professional film crews and hundreds of thousands of cell phones. They upload these videos by the thousands to intimidate their enemies into submission. But their social media weapons can be taken out if we have the will and unleash our experts to do so.
ISIS Social Media Crusade
ISIS almost immediately uploads their videos to social media when slitting the throats of captives, selling conquered people as slaves, throwing homosexuals off buildings, engaging in battlefield slaughters, shooting prisoners, and conducting victory parades. They continuously celebrate their depraved lifestyle, ideology, tactics and beliefs on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and other social media. And when some social media companies take down their excesses, ISIS as quickly regroups and posts it on other social media outlets. Their social media jihad is relentless and operates 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
The leaders of ISIS know we live in a social connected culture and they use it daily to advance their ends. More importantly, they know that a single Tweet generates little action, but a Tweet and a post on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram increase the circulation, and influence of a single Tweet, exponentially.
In 2007, the blogger Robert Scoble identified the social media starfish as a visual way of representing what ISIS does every minute in the Internet: Use various branches of social media to convert the vulnerable to believe their propaganda. The critical concept in this diagram is “conversions.” Used correctly, a company with a product, a politician with a cause, a now a jihadi with a fanatical ideology can convert others into willing believers. ISIS leaders know that social media enables them to share larger, deeper, and more extensive relationships. It is why they draw converts from over 70 countries to their expanding caliphate. Social media tools are so ubiquitous we forget how powerful they are. Mostly, they are fun which is why they are so popular. They create a social story…a human story…not a technology story.
When used together in a Starfish strategy, intelligence services in the West can develop relationships with others to increase trust. ISIS uses this tactic successfully. Our intelligence services were very good at doing this during the Cold War. With the correct use of social media, we can convert social media relationships to fight the scourge of ISIS. With social media tools we can create, collaborate and share information with others. To compete successfully against ISIS, we must use these social media tools to our advantage to contact, convince, and befriend others through a relationship. We can use them, as ISIS does, as a force multiplier. Social media aggregator tools like Google+, Instagram and Twitter can be used to defeat ISIS.
These social media tools are more powerful by a factor of millions when used together than when used alone. ISIS and other radical Islamic terrorist organizations know this. As a force multiplier, ISIS perpetually uploads its combat and recruitment films to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms and reaches hundreds of millions of viewers. They must be stopped.
We need to act on this as well.
Terrorists Use of Social Media in an Operational Attack
During terrorist operations, they have demonstrated a professional grasp of messaging and messaging tools. They understand that the optics, as captured in social media, is as important to their victory as any military objectives they achieve on the battlefield. And, they’ve used the mainstream media, often unfiltered, as an adjunct force multiplier to increase their power. They are very good at the social media war.
Their attack on the Lindt store in Australia is a good example. For unlike decades of practice in prior attacks, the terrorists at the Lindt store in Australia allowed their hostages to keep their cell phones. Then they ordered some hostages to call news stations to try to get on the air live. Why the change in tactics? Because now they have seen how ISIS has mastered the tactical advantage of manipulating social media to broadcast their ideology.
WWII Social Media Redux
This is not the first time we have faced a social media challenge from a murderous organization bent on world domination. When I was a student at the American College (now University) in Paris, France in 1975, I used to go to Nanterre University to research original sources (films, posters, newspapers) to write a paper for a political science class on Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi Propaganda Ministry.
I saw remarkable propaganda films Goebbels created in the 1930’s and 1940’s in the original versions. Watching those films for many hours on Saturdays, I knew immediately that there is no question that, like the ISIS propaganda ministry, Goebbels and the Nazi Propaganda Ministry understood the impact of film and radio, the social media tools of his time, for changing the opinions and feelings of people worldwide. As with ISIS, they used that knowledge, ultimately, to bring about massive death and destruction.
But as good as Joseph Goebbels was at using the social media tools of his time to conquer tens of millions, he never had Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Twitter and the other social media tools ISIS has appropriated and used so successfully to spread its ideology through visual depictions of its hyper-violence.
The fight against ISIS will take place on many fronts. The social media front is one we created and mostly dominate. There is no reason we cannot win this one. All we need to do is to unleash our social media professionals and companies. Even if we are already several years late to the fight, working together with our intelligence professionals, they can roll back the ISIS and other terrorist organization’s cyberspace battlefield wins.