Newspaper article International New York Times

Sunni Militants Turn to Social Media to Advance Cause

Newspaper article International New York Times

Sunni Militants Turn to Social Media to Advance Cause

Article excerpt

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has demonstrated modern sophistication in its adoption of social media, particularly Twitter.

The extremist group battling the Iraqi government, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, may practice a seventh-century version of fundamentalist Islam, but it has demonstrated modern sophistication when it comes to using social media, particularly Twitter and other sites like WordPress and Tumblr.

On Twitter, ISIS has hijacked World Cup hashtags, flooding unsuspecting soccer fans with its propaganda screeds. It has used Facebook as a death-threat generator; the text-sharing app JustPaste to upload book-length tirades; the app SoundCloud for jihadi music; and YouTube and Twitter for videos to terrify its enemies.

One Twitter account that purports to be linked to ISIS even altered a picture of Michelle Obama to boast about its capture of American-made equipment. The sign in her hands was changed from one saying "#BringBackOurGirls," referring to the worldwide campaign to save the schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria, to one saying "#BringBackOurHumvee."

ISIS has outfought both its Syrian rivals and the Iraqi government online, as well as on the battlefield. The Iraqi government's response has been to order Internet providers in the country to block most social media sites.

What ISIS realized, more quickly and effectively than its rivals, was that "smartphones and social media accounts are all that is needed to instantly share material in real time with tens of thousands of jihadists," said Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst who on Friday published a study of ISIS and Twitter on the website of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online.

"ISIS, as well as its fighters and supporters, quickly adopted these tools and has been utilizing the latest Internet technologies and social media outlets to maintain massive, sophisticated online media campaigns used to promote jihad, communicate, recruit and intimidate," Ms. Katz wrote.

Soon, ISIS was posting Twitter messages from the battlefield in Syria and later in Iraq. When the governments it was fighting pulled the plug on its cellphone connections, it had engineers come in to set up mobile hot spots offering Internet access.

ISIS has also actively looked for ways to increase its traffic internationally, as part of its recruitment drive aimed at Europeans and Americans. At one point, the group hijacked several Twitter hashtags related to the World Cup and fed soccer enthusiasts ISIS propaganda instead of news about the current tournament in Brazil. In one particularly gruesome instance, the organization posted a video of the beheading of a police officer on Twitter, with the message: "This is our ball. It's made of skin #WorldCup."

Aside from sowing terror and winning extremist admirers, ISIS's use of social media has also had both strategic and tactical impacts on the battlefield. …

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