Bahjat Majid, 33, sat anxiously in his family’s refugee camp in Ainkawa, Iraq, in late September. In just days, he said, he would leave them and return to the front line as a Kurdish peshmerga soldier to fight the self-declared Islamic State.
During his last battle, in Aiyrash Village near Qaraqosh, Majid endured heavy fire from snipers and mortars, the combat continuing day and night, uninterrupted for nearly a week. The memory haunted him.
More than combat kept Majid awake at night. He said his sleeping problems persisted because he couldn’t forget the graphic propaganda images posted and publicized online by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Iraqi men, women and even children — nearly everyone has seen the pictures of crucified enemies, the snapshot of the headless corpse of a little girl in a party dress, the videos of victims moments before a knife cuts through their necks.
“Maybe the peshmerga are strong, but they’re also afraid,” Majid told me. “The strong media that the [ISIS] uses affects people.”
Welcome to modern warfare, where online propaganda plays a central role.
In the past year, ISIS has used social media and the web to control the narrative of the conflict in Iraq and Syria. And though it borrows some tactics from propagandists like Vladimir Putin, ISIS has also proven a macabre trailblazer.
Despite its grand ambitions of establishing a geographically transcendent caliphate, the terrorist group is not recognized as a nation-state, occupying a swath of territory stretching across Iraq and Syria conquered by brute force. Its decentralization has proven to be a big boon for its propaganda efforts, allowing ISIS to push out its story in a novel way. Because ISIS’s propaganda originates from thousands of individual sources, it’s much harder to counter.
In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, we saw how the Web and social media could be used to push back against tyrants and organize protest and revolution. In 2014, we’re learning that this powerful tool, like all others, can be used to spread lies and misinformation as easily as it can spread the truth, and it can be used to suppress and discourage free speech just as it can be used to promote it.
Propaganda has long been a tool of war, employed with increasing savvy. For example, as Russia pawn Viktor Yanukovych dispensed armed forces on peaceful protestors, and as the Kremlin invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine this year, Vladimir Putin made clever use of state-owned media.
He claimed the protestors at Maidan were extremists, nationalists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites — a smear campaign that worked. Western leaders and media outlets hesitated to throw their full support behind the Maidaners, and in the name of balance, many even further circulated the false Russian claims. So Putin plugged along, employing the same tactics to falsely assert Crimea needed annexation because of the oppression of Russian speakers. He also claimed that Russians had no involvement in the supposedly organic separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine — a “fact” proven demonstrably false, but often repeated last spring to international confusion.
Such comprehensive propaganda strategies have unfortunate repercussions for journalists, especially those who question the spin. Where once both sides relied on reporters to cover the story of war, affording them relative safety, propaganda is increasingly crowding out independent journalists who pose a threat to warped narratives. Consequently, reporting on conflicts has become much more dangerous.
Already, Russia has a history of killing journalists who offend the Kremlin. The case of Anna Politkovskaya, shot execution-style after publishing stories critical of the Russian government, caught Western attention, but 35 other journalists have also been murdered in Russia since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. When things heated up in Eastern Ukraine, alleged “separatists” — who actually enjoyed the full support of the Kremlin — began kidnapping several journalists there, enough to make many reporters think twice about making the trip.
Like Putin, ISIS recognizes how independent journalists can undermine propaganda. But Putin, as head of a nation-state, needs at least some claim at legitimacy, so his propaganda focuses on white-washing his illegitimate behavior.
In contrast, ISIS believes it derives its legitimacy from a mandate from Allah to establish a caliphate. The West’s approval offers it no benefit, which frees its propagandists up to be rawer, more graphically violent, and more unhinged. Where traditional states like Putin’s Russia threaten journalists implicitly, the Islamic State does so much more aggressively. The videotaped beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff sought to rattle the West and grab attention, but they also sent a clear message to other reporters: Stay away or pay with your life.
With journalists presumably out of the way, ISIS crafts two messages, one to the Muslim world and one to the West.
For its “domestic” audience, ISIS uses propaganda to persuade recruits to join its fight. It seeks to make jihad seem manly, cool and strong, posting highly produced, film-trailer-style promotional material. It has even posted pictures of terrorists with kittens and Nutella. So far, the propaganda looks to be succeeding: Today, ISIS is estimated to have more than 30,000 members from around the globe, the CIA estimated in September after reviewing intelligence reports collected since May. Members hail not only from Arab nations but also Britain, the United States and Australia.
Content targeted at an international audience differs vastly. ISIS wants to scare frighten its enemies, both to deter counterattacks and to coerce conversions. It’s working, one influential Kurdish commander fighting against the Islamic State told me as I reported for National Review:
“They started this almost one year ago, [using] all the media — social media, Facebook, the Internet — [to show] how they are killing the people, how they are taking their kids, how they are killing children, how they are taking the women, females, so it’s really psychological war, and I can say that they are succeeding. . . Most of the peshmerga, you know, they are from [this] same region, so when ISIS came, some of them [said they had to first] take their families and kids to the safe area [before they could join the fight]. . . . That’s a challenge for us.”
For both markets, ISIS makes use of its decentralized structure. One of its most powerful propaganda tools is an app called “The Dawn of Glad Tidings,” or “The Dawn,” for short. As J.M. Berger, an expert on terrorism, wrote in the Atlantic this summer, users consent to allowing ISIS to post to their social-media accounts. To avoid Twitter’s spam-detection algorithms, Berger noted, the app even spaces out its posts.
In August, Staffan Truvé, the co-founder of social-media monitor Recorded Future, and his team tracked 27,000 Twitter accounts that mentioned the ISIS positively. They also found the ISIS had succeeded in creating hype — a total of 700,000 accounts discussed the terrorist group.
Twitter has tried to counter ISIS, suspending more than 1,000 accounts it suspected of terrorist links. But that hasn’t been too successful; because the ISIS propaganda arm isn’t rigorously structured, it can be much more flexible than, say, Russia.
“When an account gets shut down, a new one is immediately created, and they use other guys to promote the [new] account,” Truvé tells me. “It’s kind of a whack-a-mole thing.”
Coupling The Dawn app with a sharp hashtag strategy, ISIS tries to get its content to trend globally. During the summer’s soccer games, it diverted attention and inspired fear by using a #worldcup2014 hashtag. Likewise, after President Obama approved airstrikes, it fired back online with a #MessageFromISIStoUS hashtag threatening revenge.
Perhaps most notable, when the ISIS took over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June, it revealed a calculated social-media plan, pumping out a record-breaking 40,000 tweets in a single day, Berger reported. It followed promptly with tweets depicting an ISIS flag erected over Baghdad.
“The volume of those tweets was enough to make any search for ‘Baghdad’ on Twitter generate the image among its first results,” Berger noted, “which is certainly one means of intimidating the city’s residents.”
In such a literally cut-throat environment, real journalism is not only dangerous; it’s essential. For all its strategic value for bad guys like the Kremlin and ISIS, propaganda has one crucial deficiency: It’s not the truth.
“I think that journalists have to adapt to the new media environment — everyone does,” says Courtney C. Radsch, advocacy director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “There’s no going back. … You have governments and extremist groups and factions creating their own outlets for communication strategies, so journalists will have to try to carve out a space for themselves that’s adding value.”
Finding that space shouldn’t be hard, though it will require courage.
Editor’s note: Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a fellow for the Franklin Center and Independent Women’s Forum. She has reported this year from Ukraine and Iraq.