Militants In Iraq Are Surprisingly Brilliant On Social Media

In addition to seizing key towns in Iraq, Sunni militants in the country have demonstrated a remarkable ability to control and amplify their message far beyond the Middle East.

“The advance of an army used to be marked by war drums. Now it’s marked by volleys of tweets,” extremism researcher J.M. Berger wrote recently in The Atlantic.

With sophisticated social media campaigns, slick graphics, and professional video production, the propaganda campaign from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has helped bring in new recruits and terrified its enemies long before they came under attack, The Guardian reports.

The ISIS blitz through Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, was presaged by an hour-long film the group posted days before — leading many Iraqi soldiers to strip off their uniforms and flee before the shooting even started.

The film, called “The Clanging of the Swords IV,” is a far cry from shaky camera footage of IED strikes that has been carried on Al Jazeera or jihadist forums over the past decade. Instead, it features Hollywood-like sensibilities and production values, with slow-motion explosions, graphics of sniper crosshairs, and aerial drone footage, according to France24.

“The video was a message to ISIS’ enemies,” Abu Bakr al-Janabi, an Iraqi ISIS supporter who claims to have knowledge of the group’s media operations, told The Guardian. “It’s ISIS saying to them: look what will happen to you if you cross our path. And it actually worked: a lot of soldiers deserted once they saw the black banners of ISIS.”

On Facebook and Instagram, the group’s members keep outsiders abreast of what’s happening where they are with artsy photos, and they often game Twitter to inflate their message and branch out. ISIS has been ingenious in taking over Twitter hashtags to get its message trending, through the use of a sophisticated Android app that supporters download, allowing the group to post messages to their accounts.

As J.M. Berger writes:

The app first went into wide use in April 2014, but its posting activity has ramped up during the group’s latest offensive, reaching an all-time high of almost 40,000 tweets in one day as ISIS marched into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last week. On Sunday, as the media reported on the group’s advance toward Baghdad, hundreds of Dawn app users began sending thousands of tweets featuring an image of an armed jihadist gazing at the ISIS flag flying over the city, with the text, “We are coming, Baghdad”.

The volume of these tweets was enough to make any search for “Baghdad” on Twitter generate the image among its first results, which is certainly one means of intimidating the city’s residents.

Its messaging has also been bolstered by an influx of recruits from the U.K., who have brought their knowledge of the English language and western pop culture.

The result: Clever Photoshops of fighters on posters with slogans like “This is our Call of Duty” — a reference to the popular video game — or “You Only Die Once, Why Not Make it Martyrdom.” In one case, ISIS even doctored a photo of Michelle Obama holding a sign that said “#BringBackOurHumvee” in reference to its seizure of American-made trucks, weapons, and other equipment from the fleeing Iraqi army.

But while ISIS is certainly winning the social media game, it’s important to remember much of its propaganda serves to instill fear in the other side, and doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s really happening on the ground.

“The fear about ISIS storming the capital [of Baghdad] is borne out of their social media campaign, not reality,” the Guardian’s Middle East correspondent, Martin Chulov, told a colleague recently. “They don’t have the manpower to do that.”

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