ISIS is Losing the War on Social Media

Cyberbullying is almost always wrong — unless your target is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Thanks to concentrated online efforts to suppress ISIS social media accounts and bloody real-world push toward ISIS’s stronghold in Mosul, Iraq, U.S. military researchers report that the terrorist group has been posting much, much less — which could be a sign that its brutal regime is coming to an end.

A new study published this month by the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point analyzed the volume of social media and official propaganda publications coming from ISIS’s leadership, and found that the terrorist group’s output had significantly declined. According to the study, the group pushed out over 700 posts with images or media in the month of August 2015 alone — but by August of this year, that number was down to only 200.

That's a good lookin' graph for people who don't like terrorist propaganda. 

Combatting Terrorism Center

The big takeaway, however, is what the posts were showing. During ISIS’s lightning-fast rise to the top of every international terror watch list, the group made an impression through highly-publicized killings and glorified propaganda of martial success.

ISIS propaganda or Battlefield 5 poster? Who knows. 

Intermedia Education Project

Many of the images in the group’s glossy, English-language print and online magazine Dabiq were stylized, macho depictions of ISIS fighters that looked more like video game advertisements than depictions of war. Flashy propaganda spread through Twitter like wildfire, and often helped the group lure in young supporters around the world. But as the group took over more and more physical territory, its online publications shifted to more domestic topics, projecting the image of a functioning regime.

The Combating Terrorism Center study says that more than half of the 9,000 visual media releases researchers looked at dealt with domestic topics like government, religious practices, and everyday life in the Islamic State. Fewer than 10 percent of the messages included actual violence, despite the group’s horrifying viral execution videos.

Inundating a captive population with propaganda is a classic tactic for keeping citizens under control, but as ISIS’s physical resources and online reach got pummeled by everyone from the U.S. Military to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, the group’s relentless message stalled. Still, the CTC study’s author, Daniel Milton, told Defense One that propaganda can have long lasting effects, even after a regime has been overthrown.

“The psychological effects of the group’s control over what people read, watched, and heard will likely outlast its physical control of the territory,” Milton told Defense One.

Islamic State media photos. Clockwise from top left: a mobile media van, individuals at a media station, British hostage John Cantlie broadcasting for IS, a public screening of IS propaganda. 

Combatting Terrorism Center

But that isn’t to say that the online fight against ISIS isn’t working. Twitter may be terrible at dealing with everyday abuse, but it’s efforts to shut down ISIS are working. A George Washington University study in February showed that Twitter’s sweeping waves of suspensions had significantly affected the group’s ability to spread information on the service — enough so that many members moved to the encrypted Telegram app. Unfortunately for them, Telegram also cracked down on ISIS accounts

As for the Twitter accounts that are still up, and new ones that supporters create? Well, they have a habit of getting hacked and replaced with gay pornography, which probably isn’t in line with the Islamic State’s goals. Sometimes, “delete your account” is pretty good advice.