WHen the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) descended on the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, they didn’t just march into town—they simultaneously launched a Twitter hashtag campaign, #AllEyesonISIS. It was blitzkrieg with a digital marketing strategy.
Within hours, images of ISIS barbarity spread throughout the Arab world, sowing fear among Mosul’s residents and defenders. The social-media campaign gave an air of inevitability to the looming seizure of the city, and the atrocities that would follow. Despite the fact that they outnumbered the attacking ISIS force by 15-to-1, the Iraqi army units defending Mosul disintegrated and fled. A militia of no more than 2,000 ISIS fighters captured a city of 1.5 million.
From its start, social media has been integral to ISIS’s rise. It enables ISIS militants to raise its prestige among terror groups, and overtake older jihadist competitors like al-Qaeda. It serves to coordinate troops and win battles. And it allows the group to administer the territory under its control.
Now ISIS is using social media to expand its war far beyond its borders. What started with thechoreographed execution video of James Foley, blasted across the Web through an army of dummy Twitter accounts, has now morphed into something more devious and distributed. Rather than calling followers to the front lines, ISIS’s social-media strategy cultivates them at home in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Asia. And it can use those followers to devastating effect, whether sending masked gunmen storming into the Paris Bataclan theater or inspiring an American citizen and his wife to massacre 14 co-workers at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California.
In the idealistic and early days of the Internet, many Silicon Valley pioneers thought that in creating a more connected world, they might also create a more peaceful one. The reality is more complicated. Global connectivity has brought many new opportunities, undoubtedly, but it has also bred a new generation of threats. A decade ago, it would have been unthinkable that a militant in Syria might become pen pals with a lonely teenager in small-town America. These sorts of interactions now keep those at the FBI, NSA, and local law-enforcement agencies awake long into the night.
A DECADE AGO, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN UNTHINKABLE THAT A MILITANT IN SYRIA MIGHT BECOME PEN PALS WITH A LONELY TEENAGER IN SMALL-TOWN AMERICA.
Yet in war, just as in nature, every action merits an opposite reaction. Over the past few years, many new forces have marshaled to engage ISIS in this war of social media. The United States has launched a constellation of social-media accounts to battle ISIS misinformation, while spies map ISIS networks through what they reveal of themselves online (one U.S. air strike was even guided in by an oversharing jihadist). Outside government, social-media companies have increasingly revised their own systems and terms of service in an effort to mop up terrorist accounts before they spread, as with Twitter’s recent banof all “indirect threats of violence.” Hacker and independent activists are also playing an increasing role. Many associated with the hacking collective Anonymous, have taken to patrolling the darker places of the Internet, waging their own private fight to take down ISIS content wherever it is found. Some of them even named today, December 11, ISIS Trolling Day, an event dedicated just to making fun of the group.
So far, there is only one certainty in this fight. What ISIS has discovered—this very weird, effective new way of war—is not a novelty or a one-time thing. ISIS may have been the first to wield this cross of social media, terror, and war, but it will not be the last.