Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they wave al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government...

More than airstrikes: the social media war against ISIS


As ISIS and its supporters have turned to social media to spread extremist messages across the Middle Eastern region and world, the U.S. State Department has become an active player in the social media war against ISIS.

The Department of State has created a Twitter account run by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) called “Think Again Turn Away” and can be followed at @ThinkAgain_DOS.  The account exists to counter the social media presence of ISIS and other terrorist organizations and challenge the propaganda they publish. 

There is also a related Facebook page which, as of Tuesday morning had 7, 763 “likes.” The page states, “Our mission is to expose the facts about terrorists and their propaganda.  Don’t be misled by those who break up families and destroy their true heritage.”

In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Alberto Fernandez, an official at CSCC, told the publication “Our goal is not to make people love the U.S. Our goal is to make al-Qaida look bad.”  Recent posts include highlighting the UAE’s first female fighter pilot attacking ISIS on behalf of all Iraqi women, and a “Grand Theft Innocence” advertising mock-up that accuses ISIS as “using video games to play with your mind.”

Facebook and Twitter accounts of ISIS members have been increasingly suspended for posting material outside of the sites’ terms of use, but the terrorist groups continue to turn to social media for interaction with its supporters.  Both Facebook and Twitter cracked down on monitoring ISIS social activity after an ISIS associated account posted the video showing British hostage John Cantlie. 

“We review all reported accounts against our rules, which prohibit unlawful use and violent threats.”
Twitter Statement

Although Twitter and Facebook are making a vast effort to reduce the activity of terrorists on their sites, new accounts appear just as quickly as the old accounts are deleted.  ISIS members continue to find techniques and covert services to circumnavigate the sites’ terms of use and monitoring mechanisms.  The jihadist group’s digital operatives utilize “little-known content uploading services, anonymous text-pasting sites and multiple backup Twitter accounts” to remain present on social media.

ISIS propaganda strategists utilize a number of strategies to ensure that their material reaches people and governments all over the world.  Perhaps the most prevalent measure is to coopt existing hashtags and trends in order to attribute their content to already popular developments over social media.  For example, many extremist accounts utilized the variety of social activity about the Scottish independence vote to boost the activity on their posts.  Once the group’s posts are connected with the most popular hashtags of the day, their traffic vastly increases and more accounts are exposed to their activity.

ISIS operatives have also created an internal news service through a Twitter app that followers are able to subscribe to for updates with the latest from the group.  Named “The Dawn of Glad Tidings,” the service had hundreds of users and utilized personal data to post content from the extremist group through the personal accounts of its subscribers, but it has since been deactivated.

In a recent statement by Twitter, the company said “We review all reported accounts against our rules, which prohibit unlawful use and violent threats.”  In the site’s Restrictions on Content and Use of the Services, Twitter administrators are given “right at all times… to remove or refuse to distribute any Content on the Services [and] to suspend or terminate users.”

Similarly on Facebook, the terms of service prevent users from posting “content that is hate speech, threatening… incites violence… or contains… graphic or gratuitous violence.”  Facebook reserves the right to “stop providing all or part of Facebook to” it’s users if they “violate the letter or spirit of this Statement.”

The jihadist group’s social media presence expands the reach of their message, and ISIS’s digital strategists aim to project strength and legitimacy.  ISIS operatives consider their digital presence as a source of the group’s relevance and continue to use Twitter and Facebook to recruit and raise funds for jihadist efforts.

ISIS and Social Media

More than airstrikes: the social media war against ISIS