How to fight ISIS on social media

Maria A. Ressa

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How to fight ISIS on social media
In nearly every language and with startling sophistication, ISIS is reaching out to young kids around the world and enticing them to see the world in new ways

MANILA, Philippines – Three British schoolgirls, aged 15 and 16, follow ISIS accounts on social media, and get on a flight to Turkey to join ISIS. An Indonesian fighter explains why it’s every Muslim’s duty to join ISIS. A young Canadian recruit speaks with passion about why he joined ISIS, and his video ends with his death or “martyrdom” as portrayed by ISIS. 

In nearly every language and with startling sophistication, ISIS is reaching out to young kids around the world and enticing them to see the world in new ways. While Twitter and Facebook have tried to control the spread of its message, ISIS comes back with new tools, like its own social media network launched Sunday.

The spread of radicalization on social media is so alarming that governments, the private sector and civic society are belatedly coming together to find a way to protect their children. The goal: to find ways to win the war they are losing – a battle for the hearts and minds of disenfranchised youth, primarily Muslim, around the world.

“The one key assumption is that the answer is in this room,” said Ori Brafman, author of The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, a book about the power of distributed, decentralized networks to effect change.

Brafman was in front of a roomful of policymakers, foreign officials, law enforcement officers and community leaders at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Washington, DC, last February, which pulled together ministers from more than 65 countries, civil society leaders from over 50 nations, two dozen private sector leaders, the heads of the UN and regional organizations, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum to addess the problem.

“You should be talking NOT about what others can be doing, but about what you’re going to do,” Brafman added, nudging participants to bypass the onerous bureaucracy of the institutions they lead.

Terrorism has a new frontier: social media – and the winner so far is not the alliance in the room, including the United States, the world’s technology power. It’s the Islamic State, IS also known as Da’esch, a loose Arab acronym, ISIL or ISIS, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, brutal medieval puritans who are luring young fighters to its real-world battleground in record numbers.

Like this Canadian in the video below from Al-Hayat Media Center, an affiliate of ISIS. After he explains why he joined, his actions on the battlefield are videotaped and his “martyrdom” celebrated.

The US estimates at least 20,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS in a little more than 3 years, far more than the 10,000 who fought in Afghanistan in a decade of conflict that spawned al-Qaeda.

“This terrorist threat has no precedent,” said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. “It is new, and the terrorism that we confront today is very diffused and is everywhere, and recruit people who are born and grew up among us.”

It’s personal for Hans Bonte, the mayor of Vilvoorde, Belgium, the first country hit by an attack from a returning fighter from Syria. Bonte said recruitment began with “young people who had law enforcement problems” then after they appeared in videos distributed by ISIS “they were successful in recruiting other young people.”

“We have seen young people leave from nearly every secondary school in our city,” said Bonte. “Nearly every family is confronted with radicalism. We are a laboratory for CVE,” he said, “We’re facing a global problem, but we have to act locally. We can’t win by just bombing in Syria and Iraq. We have to fight it in our cities and neighborhoods.  We all have to do that and stop the ostrich policy I see everywhere.”

The conversion funnel, from being a marginalized and dissatisfied youth to an ISIS fighter, scares governments and families. Nearly every minister who spoke mentioned social media.

How does this happen? Let’s look at two conversion funnels: one for the process of radicalization and the other specifically for social media. 

Authorities around the world have identified 4 phases of radicalization: agitation – playing on personal vulnerabilities like poverty, trauma, injustice leading to hopelessness and fear; self-identification – peer pressure, group-think or the urge to belong, gratification; indoctrination – capacity-building, personal assurance; and, violent extremism – action, sacrifice and personal fulfillment.
Through each step of the funnel, the potential recruit becomes increasingly isolated from their families, loosening the bonds that maintain them in society. When those bonds are torn, it’s easy to join ISIS.
Here’s how it happens on social media.
Young fighters give a near real-time glimpse into the battlefield on social media sites like YouTube, Flickr and Tumblr. The videos they upload, with embedded links on extremist websites, alternate between brutal violence such as beheadings and the wonder of their day-to-day discoveries. There’s a sense of purpose, mission, but also fun and adventure in accounts pumped with adrenalin.

“There was one video that was posted by a Malaysian which showed him and some Arab colleagues in a fishing boat on the Euphrates showing how clear the water was,” said Sidney Jones, who leads the Institute for Policy Analysis in Conflict, in an interview with Rappler on March 6. “And they had their guns with them, but it was almost like a travelogue for going to Iraq.”

The fighters engage and interact with potential recruits on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, building a sense of camaraderie and friendship. That becomes even more potent if they are talking to real-world friends like the 3 British schoolgirls whom authorities say went to Syria to join their friend. Just following accounts of strangers on Twitter give an illusion of friendship, like Melbourne-born Musa Cerantonio, whose Facebook page is the 3rd most popular among foreign jihadists.

A study released last week said there are a minimum of 46,000 Twitter accounts used by ISIS, according to Intelwire’s J.M. Berger, who did the study commissioned by Google and published by the Brookings Institute. He said about 200,000 pieces of social media are created every day by about 2,000 accounts.

Extremely savvy, ISIS uses state-of-the art, glossy videos, including videos shot from drones spread and amplified on multilingual Twitter messages.

Once hooked in a public conversation, if potential recruits want to learn more, they can join conversations on Ask.FM, which allows for anonymous, mediated communication about anything from personal grooming to packing for the battlefield. 

This engagement leverages on the strength of social media, moving away from authority to authenticity, capturing the imagination of youths who have lost hope in their lives. 

The next level of the conversion funnel is more direct recruitment: they move to more secure social media networks like Kik and Surespot, which allow encrypted direct messages. One American Muslim boy said he chatted on social media from the beginning of his day until late in the evening.

Below is another video from Al-Hayat Media Center, a series of ISIS’ social media content that shows everyday life.

You can see the sophistication not just in the quality of messaging and video, but also in ISIS’ choices of social media networks.

Like the brutal video of the beheading of American James Foley, which spread virally. Within an hour, YouTube, Facebook and other content distributors tried to delete the worst video from their networks, but they couldn’t because ISIS had used Diaspora, an alternative social network created by an idealistic group that wanted to protect privacy. That meant the gruesome video was on servers, laptops and tablets distributed around the world beyond the reach of governments and companies.

“Not only does the group try to entice young people attracted by violence through its posted images and its horrific videos of hostages and prisoners being executed,” said Nick Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington, DC. “But they also appeal to those seeking a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a sense of personal fulfillment, by posting images of a family-friendly, welcoming life under Islamic law in the Caliphate. They are using both positive and negative imagery to draw their recruits.”

Growing without boundaries

Why is social media changing the game? Because it’s a reflection of ISIS’ own organic growth, except in the virtual world. It’s on steroids, growing without boundaries of time and space. 

According to the principles of Brafman’s book, al-Qaeda was difficult for governments and their military to handle because it was a starfish compared to governments’ spider set-up: cut off the head of a spider, it dies; cut off the arm of a starfish, it grows another and you wind up with two. It’s a great metaphor for the differences between a top-down organization versus a bottom-up structure.  Al-Qaeda had co-opted Muslim groups around the world to create self-sustaining terror cells managed by a central leadership.

Al-Qaeda 2.0 began to win the war in the virtual world, and ironically, as its top and middle rank leadership was decimated in the real world, its virtual reach became more sophisticated. AQAP, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, notched it up higher with American Anwar al-Awlaki’s super-charged online messages which have reached Southeast Asia.

In the video below, an Indonesian calls for Muslims to join ISIS.

ISIS is 3.0 and takes it a step further in both the real and virtual worlds: its terrorist hierarchy is more decentralized than al-Qaeda, which had a stricter command and control structure.

This is where Brafman’s ideas blossom: he states that the more decentralized, the more distributed the networks of an organization are, the harder to conquer. An organization that relies on the peer-to-peer relationships of the internet spreads its message faster and grows in a more haphazard pattern, but it’s also more durable, more adaptable and harder to defeat.

Social media has another effect on its users: it changes a person’s chemical and hormonal balance, increasing levels of dopamine and oxytocin, among others. This makes social media use slightly addictive, according to Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging or FMRI brain scans. What this means is that with prolonged use, social media rewires the plasticity of the brain. This is part of the reason ideas and emotions spread so much faster on social media, and the foundation for ISIS’ success. 

Why have governments failed so badly against ISIS? Because they fear losing control – which is partly what social media is about. They succeeded in the past because of their hierarchy and processes, but these are exactly what is making them fail now.

Still, anyone can use that same foundation.

In From Bin Laden to Facebook, I deconstruct the viral spread of this radical ideology on social media years before ISIS. These ideas are behind the fast growth of the news site you’re now reading. Rappler, news re-envisioned for the age of social media, builds communities for civic engagement and attempts to capture the zeitgeist for change, helping build institutions in the Philippines bottom up. We use a formula I shared at the CVE summit, our own reverse conversion funnel to expand reach and influence.

“The threat the world is facing today is unprecedented,” said Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh just weeks after ISIS burned to death a Jordanian pilot. He emphasized “disrupting the ability of the terrorists to utilize technology, especially social media, to recruit and appeal to the young.”

The solution, according to the February CVE Summit, is to have a whole-of-society approach in galvanizing communities to make them resistant to the spread of the virulent ideology, and it must happen in both the real and virtual worlds.

Jordan’s Minister Judeh said nations need to address real-world problems and give its youth 3 things: education, opportunity and empowerment. 

Begin at home

That fight, nearly everyone in the room said, begins at home.

“We want our communities to react and respond against this extremism in their midst before it actually becomes a real threat,” said Rasmussen. “Well-informed, well-equipped communities, local institutions, families are the best defense against extremism because they’re best able to act before the activity manifests in violence.”

Start with the family. 

“One of our best assets are the fighters’ families,” said Peter Neumann, the director for the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization in the UK. “99% of the parents do not want their kids to go to Syria.  None of them want their kids to die.”

Which is exactly what happened with the parents of the 3 British schoolgirls who many believe joined their friend in Syria. The parents said if they knew, they would’ve prevented their children from going, but the police failed to tell them directly.

“The answer is in this room,’’ Brafman told the gathering of leaders from more than 65 countries, emphasizing that this problem can’t be solved with business as usual attitudes. His message was clear: in your area of responsibility, what can you do tomorrow? Commit to it and do it. 

It’s what the terrorists are doing. –

Part 1: How to fight ISIS? Build communities

Maria A. Ressa is the author of Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and 10 Days, 10 Years: From Bin Laden to Facebook.


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Maria Ressa


Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 37 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, and How to Stand up to a Dictator.