August 22, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Social Media Begins to Turn on the Islamic State

• The horrific murder of US photojournalist James Foley at the hands of the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) has it, however temporarily, on the defensive in cyber space

• In response to pressure, Twitter has been suspending accounts of people attempting to share the video of Mr Foley’s murder, and other violent extremist imagery, as users are reporting the abuse

• At least on English language Twitter, the most prominent and followed supporters of IS are either suspended and now opening new accounts, or are turning their accounts private, which limits their recruiting appeal to a degree

• While it might seem trivial, pushing back against IS in every forum and territory in which it appears, from Mosul to the Internet, is how the group will be truly diminished.

The group that calls itself “the Islamic State (IS)” believed it was sending a powerful message to the West in general and the United States in particular with its horrific recording of the murder of US photojournalist James Foley. However, the message might not have been what it intended, as English-language Twitter has reacted more in anger than fear. Twitter the company has begun suspending accounts of those trying to spread the video of Mr Foley’s murder, and users are increasingly posting the names of accounts they feel are IS supporters and asking the company to block the accounts.

Up to Mr Foley’s murder, most of the English-language tweets concerning IS were about how powerful it had become. Even the many detractors, who despise the group, tweeted almost in awe of the speed of IS conquests, wondering if “Baghdad is next?” After Mr Foley’s murder, the tone has shifted. In random sampling of IS-related tweets, the sentiment/perception of IS is more as a murderous terrorist group and less as a functioning state and advancing army, which is the image the group had wanted to promote.

More importantly, Mr Foley’s murder might herald a shift in US support towards increased military action against IS. Up to now, there was a strong sentiment that IS, however vile, was a local problem in which direct US military action would have little lasting effect or even make the situation worse. While still early, there is increased mention of additional US military effort, though what that will entail is unknown.

And there appears to be a much-belated understanding that the fate of IS (and therefore the stability of Iraq and the region) is inextricably tied to Syria. For months, experts have warned that Iraq can’t be stabilized unless Syria is as well, a sentiment that appears to be gaining ground.

Even the US government won’t rule out direct military action in Syria to contain the IS threat—as US Secretary of Defense Hagel said in a press briefing on August 21, “all options” will be considered. Everyone knows strikes won’t destroy the group but that more needs to be done to at least contain it until more effective and large-scale measures (political, diplomatic, and military) can be brought to the crisis. This is a trend that bears watching, as increased public support to act in Syria will lead to increased political will to do so.

Because of pubic pressure against the images of Mr Foley’s murder, Twitter has also suspended accounts of the most notorious IS supporters who violate the terms of use and propagate extremely graphic images. Accounts such as @mujahid4life have been suspended but the individuals quickly find workarounds with other members tweeting out new accounts to follow.

Another highly prolific supporter of violent extremism, @shamiwitness, made his account private, to discourage abuse reporting from new Twitter vigilantes. Suspended member @mujahid4life then reached out for direct message (DM) to get back in contact.

In a game of Twitter “whack-a-mole,” the company will shut down one account but the user will pop back up in short fashion, and since many IS supporters remain unsuspended, the network is easily reconstituted. Still, it is a disruption of sorts and therefore has some impact, however slight on breaking IS momentum.

In the days after James Foley’s murder, #ISIS has become more associated with other hashtags such as #ISISmediaBlackout and #terrorism (and even the US Department of State’s #thinkagainturnaway) and less with #caliphaterestored and #SykesPicot, as it was earlier this summer when IS swarmed across Iraq.

IS desperately wants people to believe its hype and propaganda, and sustained setbacks make that much harder to accomplish. The below chart is not the chart IS wants to see: in the last two days, more people tweeted #ISISmediaBlackout than #caliphate.

Earliest reactions to Mr. Foley’s murder suggest a recasting of the group to a more accurate picture is possible. It is not a behemoth, though it is amazingly powerful for a terrorist group. It is neither Islamic nor a State, as much as it wants to be called both. Its actions in the James Foley murder expose the group’s true identity, and reveal the nexus between Syria and Iraq, more clearly than anything else could.


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