Terrorists, social media, and spreading ideologies

Victor Barreiro Jr.

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Terrorists, social media, and spreading ideologies
While the West built social media, terrorists are the ones using it to great effect to recruit followers and fight back

MANILA, Philippines – When it comes to war and propaganda, Twitter is now its very own battlefield for hearts and minds.

And when it comes to effective use of social media to spread a message and make terror viral, it seems the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the current case study of choice.

How is ISIS able to spread its message and gain recruits from around the world? (READ: Southeast Asian recruits join jihadist ISIS)

It’s a mix of social media savvy, tactical use of technology, and the nature of the Internet itself as an isolating yet supportive force for some people, enough to drive some to become terrorists themselves.

Terror app

Analyst JM Berger, writing for The Atlantic, notes that ISIS has its hands in social media with the help of its own Android app, called The Dawn of Glad Tidings – Dawn for shorthand.


The application actually asks for a large number of permissions, including full network access and access to the storage on your device.

Upon sign up, the app will post things on your behalf to your Twitter account, with the content decided by a member of ISIS’ social media team – complete with links, hashtags, and images.

To avoid being categorized as spam, the sending of the messages is spread out so it’s not detected from Twitter’s algorithms.

What must be noted is that, with their rising activities now, the use of the app and the spread of the messages is increasing, with nearly 40,000 tweets made in a day as ISIS entered the city of Mosul on June 10.

Spreading a hashtag, spreading a message

Aside from this, ISIS appears to use targeted social media campaigns to gain attention and support.

By harnessing the app and its growing following, it also skews results on other Twitter accounts that tweet trending hashtags, which spread the hashtag – and ISIS’ message – further.

ISIS followers have also taken to Twitter to make their own hashtag spreading accounts, enhancing the capabilities of ISIS further.

ISIS’ movements, as noted by Berger, are “a combination of an extremely ambitious military campaign with an extremely ambitious PR campaign. Social media is most of that PR campaign.”

Many voices in a human conflict

Talking to VICE News, Dinah Alobeid, spokesperson for social analytics company Brandwatch also explained, “Taking out the political and human rights implications of this situation, ISIS has a keen sense of how to attract their target demographics, keep them engaged, and spread their messaging and news via social to highly interested individuals.”

Due to the size of ISIS, many different voices can be heard on a variety of topics, but the system and ideology lets them have a united front. 

Speaking with VICE News, Abu Bakr al Janabi, a prolific ISIS supporter and translator of ISIS messages, said there were different ISIS divisions on social media.

Aside from official ISIS account, which publishes the group’s video releases, there’s also the “ISIS province accounts, which publish live feed info and pictures, the ISIS mujahideen accounts, where fighters talk about their experience and daily life, and ISIS supporters, who counter Western, Shia, and tyrants’ propaganda and lies,” al Janabi explains.  


Aside from all the talk of hard fighting, some of the accounts incidentally show off a very human side to them, talking about some of the luxuries they manage to acquire or even pictures with kittens on them, which appear to be attempts to imitate Abu Huraira, a companion of the Prophet who took care of stray cats. 

As al Janabi noted, ISIS fighters and supporters were just “normal” people who used Twitter like any other person.

“We are normal people who love to goof around with each other, joke, laugh, and so on,” he said. “But when it comes to the protection of our people, then we are very harsh against the enemies.”

ARREST. A handout TV grab made available by Spanish Policia Nacional (National Police) arresting a suspected member of a jihadist cell in Madrid, central Spain, June 16, 2014. Spanish Policia Nacional/EPA

Effects and reasoning

The effect of ISIS’ social media savvy points to the spread of particular ideologies into breeding foreign jihadists.

Foreign jihadists from parts of Southeast Asia are also joining the jihadist cause. ISIS itself may also be getting funding from outside Iraq, using lax laws in some countries as one point for soliciting support.

For instance, the Syrian conflict, Time notes, “has lured an estimated 12,000 foreign fighters, mostly from neighboring Middle Eastern countries, but also from Europe, Australia, the U.S. – and Southeast Asia.”

Gabriel Weimann, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, noted 4 key reasons for militants using social media to recruit and solicit funds.

According to Weimann, interactivity, the relatively younger target audience of social media, the instant access to individual perosns, and the rise of lone-wolf terrorism can be seen as contributing factors.

Lone-wolf terrorists in particular, while not directly supported by a terrorist group, can engage in terrorist activities while getting the support and training of terrorists online.

Weimann also noted one interesting historical paradox coming out of the spread of social media to fuel terrorism.

The Internet and social media, said Weimann, “were developed and maintained and spread all over the world by the Western countries, by the Western model of society. And who is using it against the Western model of society? Those groups that come from societies and religious beliefs that criticize the West.”

While countries that criticize the West did not build the systems that they use to spread their ideology, Weimann added, “they only learned – and very fast – how to adopt our own devices against us.” – Rappler.com

Hooded figure image from Shutterstock.

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Victor Barreiro Jr.

Victor Barreiro Jr is part of Rappler's Central Desk. An avid patron of role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy shows, he also yearns to do good in the world, and hopes his work with Rappler helps to increase the good that's out there.