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Baghdadi’s social media war: Hype or threat?

The Islamic State group uses social media to cultivate a ruthless reputation, but their online strategy risks blowback.

Last updated: 17 Jul 2014 05:39
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Social media platforms allowed the group to document every day life in Syria [Islamic State group via Twitter]

The Islamic State group's offensive in Iraq has brought to fore the organisation's refined social media apparatus, provoking fascination, fear, and doubts over its effectiveness.

Even before the fall of Mosul in June, members of the group, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), had established a noted presence online.

Platforms like Twitter, Ask.fm, and Instagram allowed the group's fighters in Syria to document every day life, respond to journalists, as well as take questions from those interested in joining them.

Check out our complete coverage of the crisis in Iraq

On video sharing sites like YouTube, the group released feature length videos, such as the Salil al-Sawarim series, or The Clashing of the Swords, which depicted ISIL members in battle, and carrying out executions of Iraqi soldiers.

More recently, the armed group's media arm has released a new magazine, and numerous slickly edited videos including the first public sermon by the organisation's self-declared 'caliph', Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Under his leadership, the Islamic State group has demonstrated an online sophistication not yet matched by similar groups.

Baghdadi's followers have learnt the "lessons of the social media age" said technology analyst, Carmi Levy. Adding that in terms of quality, their online output represented "a quantum leap over the badly shot, grainy and jarringly edited videos" of groups like al-Qaeda.

This, Levy said, showed the armed group had benefited from the "democratisation of technology".

The influx of cheap DSLR cameras, easy to use editing software, and sufficient internet bandwidth has opened up "Spielberg-level production potential to virtually anyone", he added.

The ease of accessing such technology, combined with social media's ability to reach large numbers of people, underpins the Islamic State's outreach efforts. 

"Media tools like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, are making it easier to create a sense of online community that plays directly into the Islamic State's marketing strategy," Levy said.


INTERACTIVE: Rebels' path through Iraq


The Islamic State group's aptitude in communicating through social media, however, does not necessarily translate to an authentic increase in support.

In this respect, Jamie Bartlett, the Director for the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think-tank Demos, said the group's online ability had been "overstated".

[The Islamic State group] has been able to create the impression there is more support for them online than there really is by coordinating their activity

Jamie Bartlett, Director for the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think-tank Demos

"[The Islamic State group] has been able to create the impression there is more support for them online than there really is by coordinating their activity," he said. Adding that its young supporters are easily able to bring global attention to their cause because of their familiarity with concepts like hashtags.

Despite this ability to project a visible presence on social media, measuring the group's capability still depends on factors that are offline.

"For all the social media presence, it's still finances, firepower, organisational structure, and know-how that matters most," Bartlett explained.

Bilal Abdul Kareem, an independent journalist who spent two years documenting armed groups in Syria's civil war, also disputed the significance of the group's activities online.

Kareem told Al Jazeera that many media outlets had amplified the Islamic State group's message online, giving them a relevance that often did not exist on the ground, thereby aiding the group's communication strategy.

"Twitter campaigns are only a micro fraction of keeping their name relevant… tweeting a few thousand members doesn't give you the kind of 24-hour coverage they have received," Kareem said.

According to Kareem, other armed groups in the region were considered "boring" in comparison to Baghdadi's followers. This was because they had avoided courting sensational coverage by conducting and publicising beheadings, crucifixions, and other brutal acts.

Rival rebels groups had taken a more mature approach and were more concerned with "ousting the [Syrian] regime and saving lives", than creating a social media presence, he said.

For many of these groups, the Islamic State's successes are a bubble, which will disappear soon, Kareem added.

Listening Post - A divided Iraq and a fractured storyline

Despite such incredulity surrounding the impact of the group's social media apparatus, there are arguments that suggest its online activity will strengthen the organisation in the long run.

According to Rizwaan Sabir, a specialist in counterterrorism and insurgency at the University of Bath, the ability to share stories of heroics in a free and unrestricted way helps maintain morale and increase in-group cohesion, making the Islamic State group a more resilient opponent.

As well as persuading impressionable individuals to join them by glamorising conflict, online communication platforms have allowed members of the group to humanise themselves by engaging in conversations with ordinary people, in a way other armed groups have not.

"One could never sit down and talk with, or hear from, the rank-and-file of al-Qaeda through open-source social media platforms," Sabir said.

He added that by being "open and accessible", the Islamic State group could present itself as having "a social and political mandate, as much as it does a military one."

While Baghdadi's followers seek to court support from Muslims who share their interpretation of Islam, the group's online operations serve a very different purpose with regard to their enemies.

The fighters want to show "global audiences that the group is fearless and any attempts to militarily challenge it will not only be difficult but extremely bloody," Sabir said.

Gruesome images of the group's violence may even have precipitated the collapse of the Iraqi army in June, he added.


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Sabir argues that such a brazen presence on social media could not go on without the risk of blowback for the Islamic State group.

The same violent imagery could harden animosity towards the group, and allow other factions to justify their own violence against it.

Large-scale self-promotion on social media also serves as a live intelligence feed for global intelligence agencies. "[Security services] can develop a comprehensive understanding of the social, political, and psychological profile" of the organisation, Sabir said.

For all the benefits of social media for Baghdadi's group, these oversights could be used to "undermine and weaken" it, he added.

For the time being at least, such concerns have not been made apparent on the group's social media accounts, which continue to post graphic images and videos of the organisation's exploits.

Follow Shafik Mandhai on Twitter: @shafzibit

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Al Jazeera
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