By Emerson T. Brooking & Peter W. Singer
Like most everything today, the campaign was launched with a hashtag. But instead of promoting a new album or a movie release, #AllEyesOnISIS announced the 2014 invasion of northern Iraq—a bloody takeover that still haunts global politics two years later.
Revealing a military operation via Twitter would seem a strange strategy, but it should not be surprising given the source. The self-styled Islamic State owes its existence to what the internet has become with the rise of social media—a vast chamber of online sharing and conversation and argumentation and indoctrination, echoing with billions of voices.
Social media has empowered ISIS recruiting, helping the group draw at least 30,000 foreign fighters, from some 100 countries, to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. It has aided the seeding of new franchises in places ranging from Libya and Afghanistan to Nigeria and Bangladesh. It was the vehicle ISIS used to declare war on the United States: The execution of the American journalist James Foley was deliberately choreographed for viral distribution. And it is how the group has inspired acts of terror on five continents.
So intertwined are the Islamic State’s online propaganda and real-life operations that one can hardly be separated from the other. As ISIS invaders swept across northern Iraq two years ago, they spammed Twitter with triumphal announcements of freshly conquered towns and horrific images of what had happened to those who fought back. A smartphone app that the group had created allowed fans to follow along easily at home and link their social-media accounts in solidarity, permitting ISIS to post automatically on their behalf. J. M. Berger, a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, counted as many as 40,000 tweets originating from the app in a single day as black-clad militants bore down on the city of Mosul.
Media reports from the region were saturated with news of the latest ISIS victory or atrocity, helping to fuel a sense of the Islamic State’s momentum. There was no time to distinguish false stories from real ones. Instead, each new post contributed to the sense that northern Iraq had simply collapsed in the face of the ISIS onslaught.
ISIS spread a similar panic online. Immaculately staged photos, filtered through Instagram, transformed a ragtag force riding in dusty pickup trucks into something larger than life. Armies of Twitter bots twisted small, one-sided skirmishes into significant battlefield victories. Hashtags were created and pushed (and others hijacked) to shape and hype the story. Through this fusion of activities, ISIS stumbled upon something new. It became, in the words of Jared Cohen, a former State Department staffer and now the director of Jigsaw (Google’s internal think tank), “the first terrorist group to hold both physical and digital territory.”
More than a year ago, we set out to understand the use of social media as both a tool in conflict and a shaper of it, tracking how online chatter has begun to intersect with real-life violence in dozens of armed confrontations around the globe. In doing so, we sought to untangle a seeming contradiction. The internet has long been celebrated for its power to bring people together. Yet as it turns out, this same technology is easily weaponized. Smartphones and social apps have clearly altered the nuts and bolts of violent conflict, from recruiting to battlefield reporting. But the greatest effects may be more fundamental, expanding the causes and possibly the incidence of war, and extending its reach. Social-media platforms reinforce “us versus them” narratives, expose vulnerable people to virulent ideologies, and inflame even long-dormant hatreds. They create massive groundswells of popular opinion that are nearly impossible to predict or control.
Social media has already revolutionized everything from dating to business to politics. Now it is reshaping war itself.
Picture: Ibrahim.ID [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons