At the end of a recent Isis propaganda video, an unexpected image appears: the faces of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, riddled with bullets.
“You announce daily that you suspend many of our accounts,” the video concludes. “And to you we say: is that all you can do?… If you close one account we will take ten in return and soon your names will be erased after we delete your sites.”
Far from a believable threat, however, the video, released by pro-Isis hackers Sons of the Caliphate, demonstrates something terrorism experts have suspected for some time: Isis relies heavily on mainstream social media sites, and cutting off their access would come as a huge blow.
The video was prompted by Twitter’s announcement that it has removed 125,000 accounts since mid-2015 for “threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to Isis”. Researchers from the Brookings Institute have made the “conservative” estimate that there were 46,000 Isis supporter accounts in late 2014, meaning that the mass deletion probably took a significant bite out of the terrorist group’s Twitter presence.
Nick Kaderbhai, a research fellow at King’s College’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, tells me that six months ago he would have argued that the “noise”, or sheer scale, of Isis’s message online would be “difficult to contain” on social media.
Now, based on more recent research (including that from the Brookings Institute), he believes that “actually, suspensions have had a measured effect on the noise as well as the signal, and that Isis’ exposure has been affected”. Supporters’ anger towards Dorsey and Zuckerberg is further proof that social media could be a crucial front in the fight against Isis.
Adam Hoffman, a PhD candidate at the University of Jerusalem whose research focuses on jihadist use of social media, says in a briefing organised by BICOM that Isis use these sites for three distinct purposes. Communication between members takes place on secured messaging networks and hard-to-find forums, but popular social media sites are crucial for recruiting fighters and spreading propaganda. The average age of foreign recruits to Isis is 24 – it’s no surprise social media is used to reach them.
“A basic part of terrorism is to magnify your perceived impact,” Hoffman says. This is why highly-produced videos, profiles of heroic fighters and images of massacres are so important to the group.
A brash, boastful online presence can also affect real-world battles. Some commentators go so far as to argue that the storm of Isis tweets that accompanied the invasion of Mosul in June 2014 intimidated Iraqi forces and aided the group’s victory.
Recruitment, meanwhile, takes place in private. Reports suggest that Isis uses social platforms to scout out potential recruits, then grooms them via private message. Hoffman says this tactic is most commonly used with women, who tend to be less impressed by gory propaganda. One Jordanian woman spoke to Isis members over social media for 14 months before joining.
Deleting accounts can, temporarily at least, set back both of these activities. However, the same supporters tend to pop up repeatedly. One Isis-sympathiser who recreated his account tweeted “let the kuffar [non-Muslim] steam from the ears in rage. I am back with my latest account”.
It’s also unlikely that social media deletions could put a stop to recruitment altogether. As Kaderbhai points out: “People have travelled to fight in other people’s wars before the internet.”
Meanwhile, according to insiders, Twitter, Facebook and Google are unwilling to be totally open about the extent to which they’re cooperating with the US government against Isis, for fear other states would ask for similar favours, or customers see they’re far from neutral on this issue at least. But they are cooperating, which means we should expect more large-scale deletions.
In a fight as ideological as it is military, loosening Isis’s stranglehold over its own narrative could have huge repercussions. No wonder they’re angry with Dorsey and Zuckerberg.