(ISIS) Viral Marketing 101

Part of why ISIS has thrived in social media is that it follows the model of what has worked best for leading online figures and brands. According to Haroro J. Ingram, an expert on insurgent information operations at Australian National University, they are “more strategic plagiarists than geniuses.”

fighter with islamic state holding flag

Islamic State Dabiq / Alamy Stock Photo


Just as the Star Wars branding is consistent on the big screen or on a Happy Meal, so too is the Islamic State’s. The ISIS flag is extremely easy to draw and reproduce: monochromatic with two simple slogans: “There is no god but Allah. Mohammad is the messenger of Allah”/“Mohammed is the messenger of God.” The monochrome flag also has a long history in Eastern, Arabic, and Islamic tradition—hearkening back to one of the first flags purportedly used by the prophet Mohammad—while the slogans give the appearance of religious sanction to a group that has actually been condemned by leading Muslim scholars.


At 78 million followers, singer Katy Perry is the queen of Twitter. Her posts are authentic—written like someone in a hurry who has taken a minute out of her day to talk to her friends. By the same token, ISIS propaganda often weaves in raw testimonials from their front-line fighters. ISIS fighters describe sharing meals and laughing together; they also celebrate comrades who’ve been killed.


In the release of her 2015 music video for “Bad Blood,” singer Taylor Swift shared the spotlight with 17 other stars, including Selena Gomez, Lena Dunham, and Kendrick Lamar. These figures benefited from their association with Swift, while she expanded her reach to new fan bases. In the same way, ISIS permits other terrorist groups to swear bayat (fealty) to it and then weaves them into its social-media campaigns. Both groups expand their credibility, connection, and reach.


In early 2015, deals site Groupon featured the Banana Bunker, a storage unit for bananas. Anticipating more than a few lewd jokes on its Facebook page, the Groupon social-media team made jokes back—to every single post. The Banana Bunker sold out almost immediately. Likewise, many ISIS fighters often respond or field questions in social media. Audience engagement reached a new macabre low with a January hashtag in Arabic, “Suggest A Way to Kill the Jordanian Pilot Pig,” before a video was released of Capt. Moath al-Kasasbeh being burned alive.


Businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has mastered a particular social-media strategy: He starts arguments with other high-profile figures, which then draws further attention to himself. Surprising to some, ISIS followers have actually welcomed debate about their many horrible and seemingly contradictory acts (for example, the above death by burning is banned by Islamic scripture), believing it widens their reach and gives them standing.