It’s a sign of our curious times that the Obama administration is touting how much ground ISIS has lost on Twitter. The Islamic State’s social media operation is often credited for their success at recruiting both foot soldiers in the Middle East and “lone wolf” jihadis around the world, so a dramatic reduction of their online footprint would be good news, if that is indeed what’s happening.
The Associated Press relays administration reports that ISIS Twitter traffic has “plunged 45 percent in the past two years,” allegedly thanks to American and allied efforts to “counter messages of jihadi glorification with a flood of online images and statements about suffering and enslavement at the hands of the extremist organization.”
The AP describes some of those counter-jihad online images:
A teddy bear with Arabic writing and messages saying ISIS “slaughters childhood,” “kills innocence,” “lashes purity” or “humiliates children.” A male hand covering a female’s mouth, saying ISIS “deprives woman her voice.” A woman in a black niqab (veil), bloody tears coming from a bruised eye, and the caption: “Women under ISIS. Enslaved. Battered. Beaten. Humiliated. Flogged.”
Some of that sounds suspiciously similar to pro-ISIS online propaganda, but credit is also given to the growing sophistication of the counter-jihad media campaign, which is now better at writing messages in Arabic instead of English, using credible third parties to disseminate its messages, and studying how ISIS recruits new members.
The follower counts for pro-ISIS Twitter accounts have declined steeply, and a growing number of those accounts have been banned by Twitter administrators. Anti-Islamic State online content is now said to outweigh pro-ISIS messages by a factor of 6 to 1.
“The U.S. messages attempt to undermine many of ISIS’ most oft-cited claims. These include the group’s supposed invincibility on the battlefield or that its caliphate is good for Muslims. American partners have flooded social media with messages highlighting the group’s territorial loses and inability to effectively govern or provide basic services to areas under its control,” writes the Associated Press.
C/NET also gives some credit to private-sector crackdowns on terrorist chatter, including Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and YouTube signing on to the European Union’s new rules against “hate speech and terrorist propaganda.”
Engadget speculates that the Islamic State’s defeats on the battlefield might have played a role in reducing its online presence as its reputation for savage invincibility is shattered, causing online fans to become disillusioned.
The Washington Post mentions another energetic private campaign against ISIS online: hackers with the “Anonymous” group have been waging war against the Islamic State. In the wake of the Orlando massacre, the hackers kicked things up a notch by spamming hundreds of ISIS Twitter accounts with pornography.
The hacker spearheading this effort, “Wauchula Ghost,” was not terribly impressed with the official government campaign against ISIS online. “The government really hasn’t been doing enough, especially on social media. You see beheading images everywhere. Kids get online and shouldn’t see these images,” he told the Washington Post, without delving into the relative merits of showing those kids pornography instead.
According to Wauchula Ghost, the salutary effect of the porn spam is that it drives Islamic fundamentalists away from the hacked accounts and sometimes prompts Twitter administrators to shut the accounts down for good.
The Associated Press report on declining Twitter traffic for ISIS does not mention the possibility that users are moving to other platforms, particularly secure messaging applications like Telegram.
Such platforms wouldn’t have as broad an appeal as highly accessible mainstream services like Twitter or Facebook, but it’s hard to say whether “casual” consumers of Islamic State propaganda are integral to its success. We really need to know more about the 45 percent of followers who have reputedly drifted away from online extremism and about the 55 percent who remain.