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CDA Institute guest contributor Yannick Veilleux-Lepage, a PhD student at the University of St. Andrews, provides a thoughtful response to terrorism expert Max Abrahms’ recent article on the Islamic State’s social media strategy. 

In his article, Why the Islamic State Actually Stinks at Social Media, Max Abrahms, a terrorism expert and assistant professor at Northeastern University, contends that the Islamic State’s (IS) social media ability is largely exaggerated by “social media alarmists,” and is, in fact, counter-productive.

His article begins by refuting the claim that the IS’ social media prowess is largely responsible for its military success, namely through the steady stream of new international recruits swelling its ranks. While the identity of these so-called social media alarmists – who equate the Islamic State’s military success with its social media strategy – remains unclear, Dr. Abrahms contends that such a correlation is disproven by the fact that the Islamic State’s largest strategic gains occurred in the summer of 2014 and therefore before the release of ‘The Beheading Series;’ the four videos depicting the decapitations of Western journalists and aid workers James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and Alan Henning.

The brutality of these videos, Dr. Abrahms further argues, led the international community to “turn aggressively against the Islamic State” and strengthen “the coalition against the group.” As such, he asserts that the Islamic State’s social media strategy is counterproductive, since its brutality led to such forceful military responses by Western nations, that Islamic State fighters will be killed on the battlefield “at a pace that exceeds its recruitment rate,” thus leading to the demise of the group.

This analysis is problematic in several respects: besides refuting an argument that no one seems to be making – that the Islamic State’s military success is largely due to its use of social media – a greater shortcoming is that it advances a line of reasoning which reduces the highly nuanced, wide-ranging, and sophisticated IS social media strategy to a caricature.

Dr. Abrahms interprets the video depicting the beheading of James Foley as the first salvo in the Islamic State’s social media propaganda campaign, ignoring the Islamic State’s use of Twitter and other platforms to broadcast its propaganda during the Northern Iraq offensive of June 2014. The most shocking of these broadcasts consisted of photographs and videos taken during the massacre of almost 1,700 soldiers in Tikrit on June 12, 2014. This omission is rather telling as it demonstrates Abrahms’ preoccupation with ‘The Beheading Series’ and constitutes a fundamental misreading of the goals of the Islamic State’s propaganda as well as its targeted audiences.

In general terms, the Islamic State’s propaganda can be divided into two genres that target different audiences. The first, which includes ‘The Beheading Series’ and other depictions of atrocities and human rights abuses, such as images of wounded or dead Iraqi Security Force soldiers; the destruction of Shiite and Sufi shrines; and the execution of prisoners and members of religious minorities, represents an effort to support IS military activities and intimidate its foes.

While these videos gained a tremendous profile, particularly among Western audiences, they have been accompanied by the imagery of genuine state-building exercises. This second category of IS propaganda includes depictions of the enforcement of sharia law through the establishment of a religious police force; the establishment of religious schools; the distribution of food; and the introduction of road ordinances, currency, and, apparently, passports. This imagery of genuine state-building represents an entirely different genre of propaganda and is an integral part of the IS’ strategy.

Military victory for the Islamic State represents only one part of the equation in its drive to establish a caliphate. The key battle for the Islamic State is not solely military and is not only achieved through violence. It also includes the formation of “the practical basis of a society.” This distinction is crucial to the understanding of the IS’ social media strategy in terms of soft power projection. The aim of these depictions of state-building is to advance the notion of the Islamic State as a legitimate entity in order to gain the long-term support of the local populace as well as like-minded individuals, and to socialize the Muslim world to its ideas and values.

While Dr. Abrahms is correct in asserting that videos of beheadings and other atrocities have gained tremendous profile and led to widespread condemnation, concentrating one’s analysis of the Islamic State’s social media strategy solely on this genre ignores the more influential aspects of its strategy: the attempt to create a positive narrative through the depiction of state-building activities. These endeavors offer a sharply idealized contrast to other states in the Middle East, where aging autocrats are seen to preside over irredeemably corrupt and stagnant governments. It is the creation of this idealized narrative of the Islamic State, largely accomplished through social media, which represents the IS’ greatest propaganda success.

In order to accomplish this goal, IS media strategy exploits soft-sympathizers, otherwise known as non-combatant supporters, in the West to disseminate its message by re-tweeting or re-posting content produced and authorized by the IS leadership. Fundamentally, IS appears to have recognized that the majority of Western supporters will never engage in terrorist acts in their homelands, or join the fighting abroad. Instead, they have been provided with the ability to advance the jihadist agenda through their participation in the dissemination of IS propaganda through social media.

The use of soft sympathizers creates a huge problem for any attempt to curb the spread of the Islamic State’s messages. Blocking multiple offending users as they pop up becomes a challenge and relying exclusively on the administrators of social media platforms to limit the spread of its ideology through account closures and suspensions is unreliable, at best. In this era of instantaneous global communication, it is for the most part futile to close or suspend accounts unless such efforts are nested within a wider, comprehensive anti-propaganda effort designed to neutralize the IS narrative.

Perhaps the biggest errors committed in the ‘War on Terror’ were driven by the belief that the destruction of Al-Qaeda’s training camps and leadership would lead to the demise of the group, its affiliated movements, and its ideology. In the same way, the ability of the Islamic State to occupy land should not distract policy makers from the effectiveness of its online actions, which have been even more deeply troubling. The pervasiveness of its ideology and message means that defeating the group will require more than a simple military response in Iraq, or elsewhere in the Middle East: the message itself needs effective countering as well.

Yannick Veilleux-Lepage is a PhD candidate at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence based at the University of St. Andrews. His doctoral research focuses on the historical antecedents and the evolution of modern terrorism. He can be reached at yvl@st-andrews.ac.uk or followed on twitter @yveilleuxlepage

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