The following post has been updated.
Earlier this week, the president reiterated the administration’s ultimate objective toward the Islamic State: airstrikes and partner support “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group.” But one former IS safe haven may have already been reclaimed: the social networking site Twitter.
It’s a recent change. In June, the group’s al-I’tisam page had more than 50,000 followers and the Islamic State’s al-Hayat Media Center operated numerous Twitter accounts with overlapping roles such as quoting Islamic scripture (the Ajnad) and producing multi-media assets (al-Furqan). Local IS groups had Twitter pages and affiliated organizations played a role in coordinating and spreading IS communications, according to Rita Katz, the one of the founders of SITE Intelligence, a jihadist watchdog group.
“Twitter became an important tool for jihadists because of its ease of use and ability to provide rapid updates to an unlimited number of viewers. Some jihadists became active to the point of ‘live’ tweeting during fighting, reporting about injuries or deaths of fellow fighters and battle outcomes without any censorship,” Katz wrote in a blog post in June.
Perhaps the most important role that Twitter played for IS played was as a forum where potential volunteers could ask IS fighters questions about the process of joining up. It was also a means for IS to control new recruits who had to give up their social media passwords upon becoming part of the group.
Without Twitter, the Islamic State might not have been able to grow to 10,000 fighters last spring (the size of IS is currently estimated at 30,000) but the phenomenon was self-perpetuating. Many of the jihadists who became part of the Islamic State through Twitter went right back to work tweeting on behalf of IS upon their acceptance. Former Taliban recruiter and Canadian intelligence operative Mubin Shaikh recently revealed to the International Business Times that media warrior was one of the three jobs offered to fresh IS fighters.
“After the recruit has paid his jihadi dues, he is then assigned or will volunteer for a position in the Islamic State, which can be anything from ‘martyrdom’ (i.e. suicide) operations, media relations or even the police force,” said Shaikh.
In other words, when you join the Islamic State you can be cannon fodder, a traffic cop, or a PR flak.
In June, Twitter began suspending IS accounts across the site and Islamic State’s social media presence bounced to the more obscure Friendica, then to Diaspora, and finally to the Russian social media site VK, sometimes called the Russian version of Facebook, which claims 80 million monthly active users (compared to 270 million for Twitter.) Twitter would not respond to questions about the number of officially IS-affiliated accounts on Twitter, but according to Katz, “ISIS now has NO official accounts on Twitter.” It’s a claim backed up by other reports out of the region. Reportedly, following September 11, the group has vanished form VK as well.
Twitter representatives declined to comment for this story except to say that accounts found to be in violation of Twitter’s rules would be suspended.
This is not to say that Twitter isn’t a fertile froth of pro-IS sentiment. In retaliation for the perceived persecution by Twitter’s management, members of an allied group called Dawlamoon this week posted a series of tweets calling for the killing of Twitter employees.
A spokesperson said Twitter’s “security team is investigating the veracity of these threats with relevant law enforcement officials.” The @Dawlamoon account was promptly suspended.
Following President Barack Obama’s address on Wednesday night and into the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, several angry IS fans took to Twitter to wage jihad in 140 characters or less.
IS (@TravlerofDunya) September 11, 2014
But these tiny threats look pitiful, disorganized and random compared to what IS is able to do on other social media with much smaller user groups, in terms of releasing video and interacting with recruits.
On Saturday, September 13th, IS returned to Twitter to release footage of the execution of David Haines, a british aid worker. According to Katz, they did so from an account (mansoroun) that was private until just before IS released the Haines video. The account garnered a small 700 followers before it was terminated.
That’s the model that IS now operates under on Twitter. In a September 3rd blog post, the group Recorded Future noted “ISIS supporters will create a new account, usually under a very similar name, almost immediately after their profile is suspended by Twitter. The new user handle is then promoted by other ISIS-related Twitter accounts.” They put the number of pro-IS Twitter users at 27,000 and conclude that Twitter is in fact “struggling” to keep up and enforce terms of service. But the amount of time that IS supporters have to spend creating new accounts and relocating posters who have been suspended surely limits their influence on the site.
The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications launched its own Twitter and Facebook response to IS in December, called “Think Again, Turn Away,” a campaign to win hearts and minds across the Middle East. It will be no small challenge.
The Arabic language conversation on Twitter is growing and is increasingly anti-American in tone. Almost half of the Arabic chatter on Twitter is Anti-U.S. and political in nature. But it’s a conversation that the Islamic State, formally at least, can’t participate in.
The above post was updated to reflect new information about the death of David Haines.