A kitten and a gun, as posted on Instagram by a jihadi fighter with the hashtag #CatsOfJihad.
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Why terrorists tweet about cats

It used to be that extremists used Facebook and YouTube to post recruiting videos - but Isis and its fighters have become adept at using social media to show their side of war.

In April, British Pathé uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 newsreels to YouTube. From 1908 until the late 1940s, when television gradually supplanted them, these reels gave the public what newspapers and radio couldn’t: a visual, moving record of current affairs. The iconic footage from the Second World War – including Hitler’s early speeches and the bombing of Hiroshima – were also useful for the government’s propaganda effort. In those days, controlling the narrative was as simple as keeping an eye on a few newspapers, a handful of movie studios and the BBC.

One of the wonders of the internet is how irrelevant it makes the distinction between “people” and “the media”. Was it a journalist or a blogger who broke the story? Who cares, if it gets a minister sacked? Today, a smartphone can be as powerful as a media agency.

Consider that 11 years ago many of us saw the US-led invasion of Iraq through the eyes of John Simpson, who spoke to BBC viewers live via satellite phone from a road near Mosul and explained that it was “a bit of a disaster, I have to say” that the Americans had bombed one of their own convoys and killed around ten people. The broadcast was remarkable for its intensity and candidness – at one point a soldier interrupts Simpson to point out that the journalist is bleeding – but at root, the footage is little different to a Pathé newsreel. It might be more immediate and more explicit but it is still war reportage by a journalist whose job is to tell us what he thinks we need to know.

It is too dangerous for most journalists to report from Syria or Isis-controlled territories in Iraq. Our perception of what is happening comes instead from the fighters themselves. They are using Twitter and Instagram and relying on the disturbingly well-organised Isis public relations team – which knew, for instance, that the best way to spread videos of the murder of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit was to upload them to sites such as LiveLeak, rather than to send them to major media outlets.

Different Isis groups each have their own “corporate” Twitter accounts – which brag about victories both real and imagined. Individual fighters use apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Kik to communicate with each other and social media sites including Twitter and Ask.fm to troll their critics. There’s a subgroup of fighters who Instagram photos of their guns, snacks and cats.

Many of these young men are showing off because they want to prove to their friends – some of whom are in the west – that joining Isis is fun. Like execution or recruitment videos, social media jokes are an exercise in propaganda. No wonder an Isis fighter tweeted: “Praise be to Allah, who gave Twitter to the mujahideen so that they may share their joys and not have to listen to the BBC, al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera.”

And no wonder that from 13 June, the Iraqi government began blocking social media and video sites across the country. Isis has a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of soft power.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's inauguration signals the start of a new and more unstable era

A century in which the world's hegemonic power was a rational actor is about to give way to a more terrifying reality. 

For close to a century, the United States of America has been the world’s paramount superpower, one motivated by, for good and for bad, a rational and predictable series of motivations around its interests and a commitment to a rules-based global order, albeit one caveated by an awareness of the limits of enforcing that against other world powers.

We are now entering a period in which the world’s paramount superpower is neither led by a rational or predictable actor, has no commitment to a rules-based order, and to an extent it has any guiding principle, they are those set forward in Donald Trump’s inaugural: “we will follow two simple rules: hire American and buy American”, “from this day forth, it’s going to be America first, only America first”.

That means that the jousting between Trump and China will only intensify now that he is in office.  The possibility not only of a trade war, but of a hot war, between the two should not be ruled out.

We also have another signal – if it were needed – that he intends to turn a blind eye to the actions of autocrats around the world.

What does that mean for Brexit? It confirms that those who greeted the news that an US-UK trade deal is a “priority” for the incoming administration, including Theresa May, who described Britain as “front of the queue” for a deal with Trump’s America, should prepare themselves for disappointment.

For Europe in general, it confirms what should already been apparent: the nations of Europe are going to have be much, much more self-reliant in terms of their own security. That increases Britain’s leverage as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, in that Britain’s outsized defence spending will allow it acquire goodwill and trade favours in exchange for its role protecting the European Union’s Eastern border.

That might allow May a better deal out of Brexit than she might have got under Hillary Clinton. But there’s a reason why Trump has increased Britain’s heft as far as security and defence are concerned: it’s because his presidency ushers in an era in which we are all much, much less secure. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.