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According to recent news reports, the Islamic State has not only threatened to kill the pope, the British prime minister, Twitter employees, and every single American, but has also suggested bombing Times Square, Las Vegas, and infiltrating the United States through Mexico.
Yet these were not official warnings issued by spokespeople for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. They were social media posts by Islamic State members, sympathizers and even some people purporting to be Islamic State militants tweeting from fake accounts. The much-cited recent call to assassinate Twitter employees, for example, was posted by an account claiming to represent a Gaza-based militant group affiliated with the Islamic State.
In June, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) issued a warning about publicizing anonymous posts: “Fake social media profiles by 'wannabe' jihadis are not uncommon,” it said.
The warning came in light of a report by British newspapers that a British militant in Syria had called for the beheading of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron. The British research group found no evidence that the militant in question actually exists, and said his Twitter posts were nearly identical to another account from someone claiming to be an American fighter for the Islamic State.
Regardless of whether the accounts are real, the Islamic State has actively encouraged a wide network of sympathizers to repost propaganda on social media. An ICSR study of foreign fighters in Syria in April found that many militants get their information from social media users who are unaffiliated with the Islamic State, rather than from official Islamic State accounts.
Amplifying militants' social media posts that threaten Western targets could just add fuel to the propaganda machine. Counterterrorism officials recently warned that online propaganda encourages radicalized Americans to carry out lone-wolf attacks. And the former head of Britain's intelligence service, Richard Dearlove, warned in July that Islamic State supporters were getting more coverage "than their wildest dreams" and urged the media to ignore extremists' posts and stop giving them the "oxygen of publicity."