A sophisticated ISIS social media campaign

CBS News reports: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s on-the-ground offensive in northern Iraq this month has been aided, analysts say, by an unprecedented social media blitz.

Jihadi groups using Twitter and other social platforms is nothing new. During its 2013 attack on Kenya’s Westgate mall, the Somali militant group al-Shabab mixed tweets with gunshots. Observers have long warned about the growth of social media as powerful recruitment tools for terrorists.

What makes the ISIS social campaign stand out, analysts say, is its scale and sophistication.

“I think it was obvious very early on that they launched their offensive with a social media campaign well planned in advance. This wasn’t an afterthought. This wasn’t something that they made up as they went along,” said John Little, who monitors national security, conflicts and technology at Blogs of War.

The coordinated campaign has featured what appears to be disciplined, from-the-top-down message control designed to simulate organic grass-roots activity. Complete with an app and highly orchestrated hashtag pushes, the group’s social media strategy mirrors that of a marketing company building buzz around a new product.

“Big corporations wish they were as good at this as ISIS is,” said J.M. Berger, an author and analyst who specializes in social media and extremism, and has been closely monitoring the al Qaeda splinter group’s online activity.

“This is a combination of an extremely ambitious military campaign with an extremely ambitious PR campaign. Social media is most of that PR campaign.”

ISIS has developed a Twitter app for Android phones called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, Berger said. It offers users news and information about ISIS. When users sign up, they give ISIS permission to send tweets through their own personal accounts.

“Your account functions normally most of the time, but it will periodically broadcast tweets from ISIS that are also sent around at the same time to hundreds or even thousands of other accounts,” Berger told CBS News. He said the app helps ISIS get pre-approved hashtags trending on Twitter in certain areas, which then amplifies its message.

“It’s one of many tools that ISIS uses to manipulate the perception on social media that their content is bigger and more popular than it might actually be if you were looking at just their organic supporters.”

Berger reports that ISIS posted almost 40,000 tweets in one day last week as it took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Its messages are then parroted by Internet users unaffiliated with the group and far away from the fight, sometimes called “E-hadis” or “Jihobbyists.”

“They have at least hundreds and probably more like thousands of fighters who are on social media, and then in addition to that they have many thousands of people who are casually or intensely interested in them as supporters online,” Berger said. [Continue reading…]

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