Twitter users around the world were shocked this weekend when an account linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria posted photos that appear to show the brutal execution of government-allied fighters in Iraq.
The photos were first sent out by the now suspended @w_salahadden account -- one of several Twitter, Facebook and Instagram profiles aligned with ISIS, the militant group that began capturing several Iraqi cities in a daring offensive last week. The images are part of a clever and effective online media campaign that shows the militant group has made major gains not only on the battlefield, but on the Internet as well.
"Online, it has created a brand, spread a seductive narrative and employed powerful iconography," The Guardian's Shiraz Maher wrote this week. "This strategy has been responsible for inspiring thousands of men from all over the world to join the group."
J.M. Berger of The Atlantic wrote that "ISIS does have legitimate support online—but less than it might seem. And it owes a lot of that support to a calculated campaign that would put American social-media-marketing gurus to shame."
Accounts such as @Kirkuk_ISIS, @we_sh_bag, @fawaresbaghdad, @qalamon0 and @dw_sham (which were all suspended on Sunday) updated followers on events on the battlefield in Arabic, English and several other languages. They sent out well-edited videos and pictures to boast about newly acquired arms and machinery. They distributed gruesome images that strengthened their image of brutal and hardened fighters. They rallied new recruits with hashtags and urged sympathizers around the world to express their support.
The Atlantic explains that ISIS enhances its efficiency on social media by asking users to schedule tweets and posts at particular times in an effort to make specific hashtags trend. The Twitter app The Dawn of Glad Tidings -- which was available from the Google Play store until Tuesday -- allowed users to keep track of events related to the militants and permitted ISIS to send out messages from people's Twitter accounts.
ISIS has also called on sympathizers to express their support in several global media campaigns. The "One Billion Campaign," for example, calls on supporters to upload videos and images to social media platforms showing their allegiance.
In one video uploaded on Tuesday, a man calls on his Muslim brothers in the world, and particularly in France, to support ISIS and organize protests across the country. The man also references a campaign planned for this Friday, in which the group wants its supporters to post images and videos of themselves waving the ISIS flag in public.
Yet for all its skill using Twitter and Facebook, ISIS has also experienced some of the downsides of social media.
Maher explains in The Guardian that while "ISIS has harnessed the power of these platforms better than any other jihadist movement today," it has also learned that it can't control its message completely. The group has had trouble regulating the images, pictures and messages that individual fighters post to their private accounts.
ISIS has also been attacked by its rivals on the same platforms it is using to rally support. One Twitter handle, @wikibaghdady, appears to be curated by a former ISIS leader who is now part of the rival group Jabhat al-Nusra. It has been online since December 2013 and has spilled several secrets about ISIS's structure, funding, leadership and plans.
To counter ISIS's online offensive, the Iraqi government has blocked Internet access in several regions where the group has a strong presence. It has also forced Internet service providers to restrict access to social media sites like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Skype. The move was aimed at limiting the militant group's avenues of communication and its use of social media to recruit more followers.