I presume I'm not the only one who saw the bleak execution video shot on a mobile phone by ISIS jihadis in Iraq on the news last night and had the small, banal thought that they should have done it in in landscape format. It was an intrusion of modernity into medieval bloodlust.
But the shine of technology illuminates the sectarian barbarism of ISIS in various ways. This story on The Atlantic's website about the organisation's use of social media is striking:
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni militant group that seized Iraq’s second-largest city last week and is now pledging to take Baghdad, has honed this new technique—most recently posting photos on Twitter of an alleged mass killing of Iraqi soldiers. But what’s often overlooked in press coverage is that ISIS doesn’t just have strong, organic support online. It also employs social-media strategies that inflate and control its message. Extremists of all stripes are increasingly using social media to recruit, radicalize and raise funds, and ISIS is one of the most adept practitioners of this approach.
ISIS is behind an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, which is advertised as a way to keep up on the latest news about the group -- but really functions as a kind of voluntary Twitter botnet. It's available as a web app or for Android phones through the Google Play store:
Once you sign up, the app will post tweets to your account—the content of which is decided by someone in ISIS’s social-media operation. The tweets include links, hashtags, and images, and the same content is also tweeted by the accounts of everyone else who has signed up for the app, spaced out to avoid triggering Twitter’s spam-detection algorithms. Your Twitter account functions normally the rest of the time, allowing you to go about your business.
Users of the app apparently number only in the hundreds, but the way it's managed makes it quite a sophisticated message amplifier. The Atlantic story has detail on other elements of the jihadis' strategy which, it concludes, amounts to "a calculated campaign that would put American social-media-marketing gurus to shame."
Or, to put it another way, this kind of hashtag jihad puts into context both the "Facebook revolutions" of the Arab Spring and the comparatively unsophisticated outreach efforts of the US State Department that I discussed recently with Macon Phillips.
I suspect that at some point, probably in the near future, this will cease to become a story. Social media has been woven into the fabric of global communications. It is the new norm and should rightfully take its place along side radio, television and print media as an expected platform for information warfare. Governments and terrorists have recognized this for quite some time. The general public is still catching up.
That is not to say that this is not a new and different landscape. It is. The directness and frequency of communication between absolutely barbaric forces of evil and people far removed from conflict is relatively new. But now mobile phones are carried into battle nearly as ubiquitously as AK-47s. There are no journalists dragging their feet on a story or softening the blow through polite omission of horrifying content. Terrorists and other barbarians have a direct line to potentially billions of people and they are going to use it. The dream of access and reach appeals to them as much, if not more so, than the rest of us.
The purpose of this communications onslaught is principally and literally to spread terror. From The Atlantic's story:
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”
Little proposes that the best approach:
... is to just ignore them. Do as little as you can to assist them in their attempt to spread fear and intimidation. Stop taking their propaganda at face value. Stop reflexively re-tweeting. Learn how to recognize common disinformation tactics (such as tweeting grainy photos as evidence of military progress). Try, just try, to be smarter than the enemy. This won't stop them but over time it might just slow them down.
But that presupposes that news organisations will also sign up to a campaign of not reporting news: news they're given in a constant, multimedia stream. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has targeted the campaign in a more direct way: by trying to shut down the communications infrastructure that was supposed to be the pride of post-invasion Iraq. Internet services have been cut off completely in several districts and the government is trying to block Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Viber and Skype from Iraq altogether.
This might be confusing for liberal Western observers. For good reasons, we've thoroughly internalised the idea that states which shut down the internet are bad. But when it's confronted with mass-murdering jihadis who slit the throats of children and strategise with the skill and purpose of a particularly evil corporation, it's not hard to understand why Iraq might try.