ISIS and its brutal offensive in Iraq has left the media reeling. But social media has become another battleground. Intelwire.com editor J.M. Berger has been tracking ISIS on social media for the last year, and he talks with Brooke about how the group's online strategy is better honed than its extremist competitors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. What goes around comes around.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: President Obama is weighing possible military action in Iraq as Islamic fighters gain more control.
ARWA DAMON/CNN: What Iraq is facing today is a deadlier and more ruthless occupation than ever existed during the US occupation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And at the center of it, this time, is the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, whose brutal offensive, launched almost two weeks ago, has left it in control of huge swaths of Iraq. In the region, it’s deemed too extremist even by Al Qaeda. And here:
REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL: These are the vicious, the worst of the worst. If they get back into the United States or in Western Europe against Western targets, I see that as the biggest threat today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Michael McCaul, sounds anxious. But Senator Ted Cruz cleaves as ever to his inquiring mind.
SEN. TED CRUZ: So I’ll tell you a great question we ought to be asking right now, is whether the Obama Administration has armed ISIS, this rad - these radical Islamic terrorists…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we mere mortals reel in bewilderment, here expressed by Al Jazeera America.
MALE CORRESPONDENT/AL JAZEERA AMERICA: At this point, who is the worst of the devils, this ISIS group that now dominates tremendous parts of Iraq and Syria, or Assad who’s fighting them? Now we’ve – it just seems like the whole situation is confused. Iran could be an ally and Assad could, too?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But as the mainstream media dither, ISIS sallies forth in the message war, principally on Twitter. For the past year, Intelwire.com editor J.M. Berger has been tracking ISIS's digital strategy, which he says is much better honed than its extremist competitors.
J.M. BERGER: ISIS has taken to social media in a very systematic way. For instance, they created this Twitter app which was designed to broadcast their message out at periodic intervals, at very high volume. And it was set up in a way to evade Twitter’s algorithms to detect spam. Both Twitter and Google have now killed the app.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the principal content of the ISIS Twitter feed?
J.M. BERGER: They would put out pictures and they would put out information about something that happened on the ground. They would tweet hashtags in order to get their content to show up in search results on Twitter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What kind of hashtags?
J.M. BERGER: For instance, on Sunday they were using the app to tweet out hashtag for Baghdad. And if you searched for #Baghdad on Twitter on Sunday night, you would see a message from ISIS that said, “We are coming.” They also, in recent days, have been trying to spam World Cup hashtags. They would send out messages with their content, with a hashtag for the World Cup in order to try and get into that stream. And every now and then you would see like an ISIS result in one of the top results. So it was very effective, but it’s also against Twitter’s rules. It’s a spam operation, basically, which is probably why they got shut down, not because of their content.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How long do you think they’ll be shut down?
J.M. BERGER: When Twitter puts its mind to it, they can get somebody to stop using their service. Al-Shabaab, the Somali branch of Al-Qaeda, had a Twitter account that was fairly notorious for tweeting in English and, and putting out content about their stuff. And they started live tweeting the Westgate attack in Kenya last year. As a result, Twitter really cracked down on them. And not only did they kill the Twitter account, but every time the Twitter account came back they killed it over and over again, until they just stopped trying. ISIS is planning to do a big social media push, to try and demonstrate how much support it has from around the world. And that big push is going to be significantly hobbled by the end of their spam robot. So we may see an effort to reconstitute this app from ISIS. In fact, I would expect that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, there have been reports this week of a weird Twitter account that's been disclosing ISIS’s secret workings as an attempt, I guess, to undermine the group. And it goes by the name, Wikibaghdady?
J.M. BERGER: Wikibaghdady is an account that popped up after the infighting started in Al-Qaeda. ISIS is a splinter from Al-Qaeda, and they have been really literally at war with the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. And Wikibaghdady showed up in the midst of this infighting to try and discredit ISIS. For instance, there’s a big trend on both sides right now to leak audios that they claim are recordings of phone calls by one side or the other, people talking about issues that are ideologically problematic. They’re talking about making deals with some of the more secular rivals or making deals with the Assad regime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So a lot of the content has to do with who is “purer than thou.”
J.M. BERGER: Well, the points of disagreement between Al-Nusra and ISIS revolve a lot around methodology. So there’s a lot of back and forth in their social networks, a lot of fighting over who’s right and who’s wrong and who’s too brutal and who’s betraying the Muslims and that kind of thing. They’re trying to get people to defect. They’re trying to attract local support.
But ISIS is also making a bid to, to be really the leader of the global jihadist movement. They want to supplant Al-Qaeda as the strongest jihadist group in the world and their social media effort is, is a big part of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, in country after country, in revolution after uprising, we always talk about how important social media has been and then, in hindsight, it often worked as a trigger, in some areas but really wasn't ultimately decisive. Are we right to be focusing on ISIS’s social media strategy here? I mean, is it different enough, do you think, to make a real difference?
J.M. BERGER: Well, there’s a huge amount of hype around social media use by extremists and by everybody else, for that matter. Certainly, the coverage of this week of ISIS on Twitter and on social media has been somewhat out of proportion to its importance. There’s a difference though between how different groups use it. So, for instance, in Egypt, people were able to kind of self-organize using social media, and that’s an important development.
For ISIS, it’s a different factor. ISIS is trying to attract donors and it’s trying to attract foreign fighters, volunteers to come and join them. And for that purpose, social media is a powerful tool for them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you know that?
J.M. BERGER: Well, you can see it happening. There was a gentleman from the National Counterterrorism Center who described this as “peer-to-peer recruiting.” There have been cases where you see somebody who – who’s on there with a casual interest, who gets drawn into this and eventually goes there to fight, and the whole way along their trip they’re being assisted in communicating and doing the logistics over social media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much.
J.M. BERGER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: J.M. Berger is editor of Imtelwire.com, and he’s been tracking ISIS’s Twitter strategy for the last year. How did you even know about this organization a year ago?
J.M. BERGER: [LAUGHS] Well, it was a – in the circles that I travel, and it was a pretty big deal. The split from Al-Qaeda and this infighting is good for us in a lot of ways. The problem is going to be, at some point these groups are going to want to compete in terms of what kind of damage they can do outside of the local arena. So when they start trying to one-up each other, that’s when we’re going to have to really be on watch.