Can We Win the War Against ISIS by Focusing on Social Media?

02/24/2015 12:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015
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For a forthcoming study commissioned by Google Ideas, J.M. Berger and his colleague set up a system to track pro-ISIS messaging on social media. Berger recently testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives about their findings. The study will be published by the Brookings Institution's Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World in early March.

ISIS's messaging operations online has eclipsed its military operations on the ground. Its massacres of hundreds of Iraqis and Syrians yield relatively few headlines compared to the smaller number of murders they carry out on camera.

Policy and public activism have followed the flow of ISIS media, with organized campaigns to seek the suspension of supporters' Twitter accounts, and more dramatically, a White House summit devoted to countering violent extremism (CVE) by countering ISIS's narratives and recruitment online. The West is weary of the exigencies of war on the ground. Some hope that fighting the battle on social media is enough.

There are targets in abundance. In a forthcoming study from the Brookings Institution, co-author Jonathon Morgan and I estimate that at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were being used to support ISIS in the fall of 2014. While the current number is likely lower, due to Twitter's suspension of some accounts, it is still substantial, likely generating more than 200,000 tweets per day. ISIS users are also found on Facebook, but reliable numbers are unavailable.

Some of these social media accounts belong to users based in Iraq and Syria, who are card-carrying members of ISIS. Others are supporters spread out around the world, with varying degrees of involvement with the formal organization.

"Twitter initially resisted becoming values police but the spree of beheadings changed that."

ISIS uses its presence online to communicate, both internally and externally, with a key goal of projecting its propaganda into areas outside its physical domain. These messages often contain shockingly sadistic violence, designed to inspire or recruit people with borderline personalities to carry out their own violence in ISIS's name, whether as fighters with the organization or in so-called "lone wolf" terrorist attacks where they live. In sharp counterpoint to its grisly executions, ISIS also sends out carefully manipulated images of life in its territories, which it depicts as idyllic and utopian, although tinged with harsh, violent justice for any who fail to conform to its warped vision of Islamic law.

Social media dramatically empowers ISIS's ambitions on the ground. When Iraqi soldiers fled its assault on Mosul last year, some of them had been terrified by ISIS's online videos showing graphic executions of prisoners. ISIS also aspires to spark a regional war with apocalyptic dimensions, in keeping with its view that the end of the world is at hand. Shocking ISIS videos on social media of the torturous deaths of Jordanian pilot Muath al al-Kasasbeh in Iraq and 21 Coptic Christian hostages in Libya have provoked exactly the type of military escalation ISIS desires.

After ISIS started beheading Western hostages in the fall of 2014, social media platforms began to crack down on its presence. YouTube and Facebook had existing processes for dealing with terrorist content, although they have at times strained to keep up with the volume of material ISIS creates.

Twitter had resisted efforts to draw the company into the role of values police, but the spree of killings last fall resulted in changes. Since September, Twitter has suspended thousands of ISIS supporters, in fits and starts. Meanwhile, Facebook took its existing crackdown even further, making it nearly impossible for ISIS supporters to maintain fan pages and online groups.

"Facebook has nearly eliminated ISIS supporters' fan pages and online groups."

Today, the ISIS social media machine is weaker than it has ever been, on a purely structural basis. ISIS supporters are under heavy pressure from these suspensions, limiting its ability to push propaganda out to wider audiences.

Social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, could do more to crack down on ISIS, including attacking its networks from a structural level using social network analysis techniques, rather than simply policing content as it springs up. But it's not clear that a more extensive crackdown is the best option. The current level of suspensions is limiting the reach of ISIS, while allowing for the collection of significant open-source intelligence, among other considerations. The current level of pressure, perhaps with some fine-tuning, may be a reasonable compromise.

Unfortunately, fighting ISIS online is not enough. ISIS's powerful online messages targeting extreme personalities resonate importantly with its physical realities. If ISIS existed only on social media, it would be a mere shadow of what it is today.

Territory empowers ISIS's social media and propaganda machine. Its expansive safe havens provide a safe environment from which to murder hostages and prisoners and to document those activities with professional-level high-definition video. These productions require both physical space and the security to act with impunity.

"The current level of social media suspensions is limiting the reach of ISIS, while allowing for the collection of significant open-source intelligence."

Additionally, a key element of the ISIS message online is its projection of strength. Unlike al Qaeda, whose caliphate ambitions were firmly framed in the distant future, ISIS claims over and over again that it is already victorious, with its claim to have established a caliphate as the centerpiece of that message. This image of success is a primary driver of ISIS's prolific recruitment of foreign fighters.

ISIS may be the harbinger of a new age in which conflict spills over into virtual clashes, but it will not be the last social media battlefield. Other extremist groups will learn from its model, and some states -- notably Russia, Iran and Syria -- are already deploying virtual legions to spread misinformation and manipulate political outcomes in conflicts around the world. The lessons we learn when dealing with ISIS today will be relevant for a very long time to come.

Women of Isis