Why the Islamic State actually stinks at social media

The conventional wisdom is that ISIS has managed to become so successful largely because of its social media prowess. The conventional wisdom is wrong.
By: /
April 20, 2015
ISIS militants
Islamic State militants lead what are said to be Ethiopian Christians along a beach in Wilayat Barqa, in this still image from an undated video made available on a social media website on April 19, 2015. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV

There are many misperceptions about the relationship between the Islamic State’s propaganda and its success as an organization. The conventional wisdom is that ISIS has managed to become so successful and attract a steady stream of new recruits largely because of its social media prowess, especially by promoting brutal videos like the beheadings by Jihadi John. For this reason, the social media alarmists, as I call them, appeal for social media companies like Twitter and Facebook to remove such content.

In fact, the empirical evidence does not support the simplistic assumption that ISIS propaganda helps the group.

In fact, the empirical evidence does not support the simplistic assumption that ISIS propaganda helps the group. Consider that ISIS made its biggest strategic gains last summer, before the promotion of its savage videos. In fact, most analysts agree that ISIS managed to gain so much ground because the international community was largely unaware of the group’s extreme brutality. Had ISIS been highlighting its atrocities then, the international community would only have responded sooner.

Indeed, only when ISIS released the video of James Foley did the U.S. turn aggressively against the Islamic State. And with each propaganda video, other target countries likewise became more anti-ISIS. We saw this after videos of the Jordanian pilot being torched alive, the Egyptian Coptics being beheaded in Libya, even after the Japanese hostages were killed. In each case, ISIS broadcast via social media its misdeeds, strengthening the coalition against the group.

The Paris attacks had a similar effect on the French. Charlie Hebdo sales skyrocketed, the electorate moved to the political right, and the French strengthened their role in the anti-ISIS coalition. This was reflected most concretely in the decision to deploy the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf to help bomb the group.

Because so many countries are now opposed to ISIS thanks to its counterproductive social media strategy, the group is currently losing members on the battlefield at a pace that exceeds its recruitment rate. If ISIS continues down this trend, its membership will dry up. That is why the group is so quick to accept any affiliates who want to join ISIS. Indeed, the social media alarmists miss a crucial point: nonviolent groups have much, much larger memberships than the Islamic State.

There is not even a correlation between pro-ISIS Twitter users in a country and its supply of foreign jihadists. The United States has among the most pro-ISIS Twitter users, but has supplied relatively few foreign jihadists. Conversely, Tunisia has few pro-ISIS Twitter users, but has contributed a much higher share of foreign jihadists.

This actually makes sense when you think about it because propaganda is used when needed. If ISIS had no trouble gaining members, it would not need to invest so heavily in its social media recruitment. The social media appeals of the Islamic State are thus a sign of organizational desperation, not strength. A salient example is Boko Haram, which started investing in social media over the past couple months because the group was incurring so many losses from the Nigerian military and its regional allies.

That is why the international community should take a hands-off approach in terms of shutting down Islamic State online media. Indeed, the international community should help broadcast the indiscriminate violence of Islamic State as it only hurts the group.

But even more importantly, the international community must redouble efforts to cripple the group on the battlefield. More than any other factor, doing so will make potential recruits think twice before joining.

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