Social media’s meant to be all fun and games, right? Aidan Cassidy, a social media expert and city councilman from North Carolina, notes that the recent activity of the terrorist group ISIS on social media platforms, particularly Twitter, suggests otherwise. ISIS has demonstrated an ability to use social media not only to interact with its own followers, but also to spread its message to the greatest number of people. The group’s involvement with social sites reveals a dark side of social media.
Controlling the Message
As the conclusion to his article in The Atlantic, JM Berger notes that ISIS’s social media campaign can put US social media gurus to shame. Aidan Cassidy has to agree. Through the use of social media, the group has been able to completely control its message and its image. ISIS doesn’t only use social media networks to communicate with its followers, the way that terrorist groups once used online chat rooms to spread the message to those already involved.
Instead, it is using social media to reach beyond current followers. One of the targets of the social media campaign is the audience in the west. The way the organization is using social media is three fold. It’s trying to engage with people in the west, to get people to sign on with it. It’s also attempting to intimidate those who are against its message and mission. Finally, the group is using social media to communicate with and to use its current followers to spread its message.
Inspiration and Repulsion
ISIS’ social media can be looked at as a tool that both repulses and inspires, notes Jacob Siegel at the Daily Beast. The images the group chooses to share from time to time are clearly designed to scare or shock a specific audience, usually people in the US or in other western countries, or in areas that are against ISIS.
The group is very comfortable with releasing graphic, violent images on its social media accounts, Adrian Cassidy points out. One example of a threatening image from ISIS was a picture of the White House, in which the American flag was replaced by the ISIS flag. The goal of such an image, Siegel notes, is to strike fear into the hearts of Americans and others who might be opposed to ISIS. American citizens might feel safe in their own country, but seeing such an image would suggest otherwise.
ISIS has also gone a step further in its repulsion campaign, releasing impressively violent images and videos through social sites. One such video was the beheading of the journalist James Foley. The group has also released other pictures and videos of its members killing soldiers. The violent images have been effective, notes Patrick Kingsley of The Guardian.
The images of horrific deaths allowed the group to take control of Mosul in Iraq. As Kingsley states, Iraqi soldiers ran for their lives when they saw that ISIS was approaching. They understood the fate that awaited them if they waited for ISIS to strike. Instead of defending their city, the soldiers left it defenseless and wide open to attack, out of fear.
While social media has played a big part in displaying ISIS’ fearsomeness, Aidan Cassidy points out that it’s also played a potentially even more alarming role. The group is using its strong social media presence to communicate with its current members and to pull new recruits into the fold.
Propaganda designed to reach new recruits takes two forms. One form is slogans that make working with group seem fulfilling and exciting. An example is a play on the phrase “YOLO” – you only live once. The ISIS image features a gun and the phrase “YODO” – you only die once, why not make it martyrdom. The image and slogan are chilling. The idea that the image and slogan can be an effective piece of propaganda to a disaffected person living in the West is even more chilling, notes Cassidy.
ISIS’ social media presence isn’t all death and destruction, though. The group also attempts to inspire potential recruits by showing off its “charitable” side. Along with violent, graphic pictures, ISIS releases images of its followers performing the basic roles of government, suggesting that the group is capable of leading.
Understanding ISIS’ Reach
One of the ways ISIS is able to reach so many people, so quickly through social media is that is have figured out a way to game the system. The group has created an app, the Dawn of Glad Tidings, or “The Dawn.” Once the app is downloaded to a mobile device, it gives ISIS the ability to tweet from the user’s account. With its app, ISIS is not only tweeting through its own account, but is able to send tweets from the accounts of hundreds or thousands of its followers at once.
ISIS has demonstrated an incredibly sophisticated ability to use social media to its own advantage. Through social media, the group has managed to inflate itself and make it seem as though its impact is more far reaching that it really is. As Aidan Cassidy notes, ISIS has effectively shone a light on the dark side of social media, illuminating the ways in which a group can use technology in a way that is harmful.