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The duality and mission of ISIS on social media

August 30, 2014 at 6:13 PM EST
The Islamic State has entered into the global consciousness for multiple reasons. Partly for the savagery it is willing to commit and also because of the savvy the group displays in spreading its message. For more analysis, Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution and Philip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who studies Islamic extremism.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The Islamic State has entered our consciousness for multiple reasons.

Partly for the savagery they are willing to commit and also because of the savvy they display in spreading their message.

For some analysis yesterday I spoke with Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution and author of “Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East” and Philip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and blogger at Hizballah Cavalcade, who studies Islamic extremism.

So, Shadi Hamid, compare these guys to al-Qaida. It seems that we were almost better off getting these grainy video tapes from Osama bin Laden out of a cave compared to what we are seeing today.

SHADI HAMID: So ISIS are quite advanced in their marketing and media strategy, they’ve been very active on Twitter and for those of us on the outside trying to follow them, you can actually engage with some of these people on Twitter. And they’re actively tweeting about somewhat mundane things.

There was actually a Twitter meme, where ISIS fighters were eating jars of Nutella. But on the other hand, you also see very savage things like beheadings.

So, there’s a kind of strange duality, a schizophrenia that they’re showing this dark, brutal side, but they’re also trying to show, at least as they might see it a more humane side to Western audiences.

And we’re not going to buy that as Americans, but for people who are potentially sympathetic or fence sitters, seeing those images can actually be appealing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Philip Smyth, it seemed that in the past it was guys holding machine guns in the backdrop of a video, well this is how tough I am.

It seems now the bar is I need to be holding a human head in an Instagram.

PHILIP SMYTH: We’ve seen stuff like this before. It’s not really that new, it’s just the platforms that are being utilized: Twitter, Instagram you mentioned, Facebook. There’s now direct outreach to the people they wish to recruit and to the people they wish to influence.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so, why is this escalation? Is this an escalation of the savagery to these groups feel like there is no other alternative? But why go to these extremes now?

SHADI HAMID: Well one thing that ISIS wants to do is instill terror in the hearts of their opponents.

So when say the Iraqi army or the Syrian army see images of beheading and mass executions, they think to themselves, if they get caught by ISIS fighters that’s what will happen to them.

So that really hurts the morale of anyone who’s trying to fight ISIS and we saw that in a very striking fashion with the Iraqi army.

ISIS was going into Mosul with a much smaller number of fighters, but the Iraqi army just essentially dissolved.

And that’s part of it was because they were hearing all these stories about the military prowess and the savagery of the ISIS fighters. So it does really have an impact on the battlefield.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Philip Smyth you mentioned earlier kind of almost the hijacking of conversations.

They’re not trying to hijack aircraft, but they’re trying to get into the consciousness of people who are talking about anything from Nutella to the Ice Bucket Challenge.

PHILIP SMYTH: Correct. They want to have a full sweep. If you’re trying to cast any kind of narrative, you want to look as average as possible.

If I’m, if somebody’s trying to recruit me, they’re going to want to interact with me like they were a friend, even like how we’re talking now.

It’s probably one of the best ways to get in and influence somebody’s mind.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So some of this is coming into, or across our radars, because these people understand English.

We’ve had this larger conversation of Westerners becoming radicalized, but it’s also because they know the difference of what the West is talking about.

SHADI HAMID: So there’s an important distinction here. The Head of the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi, it’s not as if he himself is tweeting or any of the senior figures around him.

We’re talking about the younger fighters on the ground, many of whom are English speaking and many of whom are European, even a few that are American.

So for them, they grew up with Twitter, they grew up with Instagram, and Twitter is about something you just do during the day.

So, they go on the battlefield, there’s been a big fight, their instinct is to tweet about that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How about the influence of American speakers, or I should say English speakers throughout the Western world participating in this conversation, how important is that to the recruitment of others?

PHILIP SMYTH: It’s extremely important. If one of the target audiences, if their sole language is English, then it’s necessary to bring them in as foreign fighters, but it’s not simply that.

As an analyst, I also have interacted with IS supporters and they will try to influence material that comes out of other analysts.

So they understand, this is kind of a full spectrum approach, if you will, to spread their narrative or to influence other people that are on the web.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So are you finding, say for example the State Department now is kind of engaged in trying to battle this conversation, with hashtags of their own, trying to find, is that successful at all?

SHADI HAMID: So the State Department actually has a Twitter account focused on  countering some of these jihadis and extremists online and specifically on Twitter.

It’s hard to say how effective that is, perhaps it’s better than doing nothing.

But we shouldn’t kind of delude ourselves into thinking that public diplomacy can really change people’s minds in a very obvious way.

The American government doesn’t have a lot of credibility with anyone who is going to be vaguely sympathetic to the aims of the Islamic State. So it’s not just a problem of message, but also the messenger.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Does the U.S. government have, not just any street credibility, but have any chance at trying to intercept that messaging that the Islamic State seems to be pretty successful at?

PHILIP SMYTH: Well in terms of monitoring and recruitment, we do spend billions of dollars a year on the NSA, which I would assume monitors quite a bit of this traffic, but in terms of countering the propaganda, it is always good to have what’s called trolls.

IS people do have their own trolls that will harass American government accounts and other analysts accounts. And sometimes it’s good for a little pushback just to show the United States is watching and that occasionally it can also poke at them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Philip Smyth, Shadi Hamid, thanks so much for your time.

PHILIP SMYTH: Thank you.

SHADI HAMID: Thanks for having us.