The Buzz

Why Is America #Losing the Twitter War with ISIS?

On February 5, 2016, Twitter announced it would increase the size of its content-review teams and deploy new software to help identify Islamic State supporters even before they break the terms of service by posting pro-Islamic State (IS) material. While Twitter’s increased efforts are necessary, they are not sufficient to address the U.S. government’s poor performance on the Twitter battlefield. As one expert observed in a July 2015 report, “So far, most of our attempts to meaningfully mitigate [the Islamic State’s] ability to globally engage have been left floundering.” The State Department’s recent organizational overhaul acknowledges frustration with existing counter-narrative efforts, particularly over social media. Notably, the Obama Administration ordered a similar overhaul a year ago, in response to the Islamic State’s resilient social media presence. Bureaucracies, particularly large government ones, are not known for their agility. What can the U.S. learn from the Islamic State’s narrative on Twitter during the first few weeks of 2016?

An analysis of sixty-five Twitter posts from January 1-16, 2016, all allegedly originating from within Syria, reveals four broad themes that deserve close attention.

1) Strength of the military campaigns (victory, targeting, advanced weapons built in the caliphate, spoils gained)

2) A prosperous place (pictures of nature, orderly streets, filled markets)

3) Piety in the actions of the people of the caliphate (mercy, justice, religiosity)

4) Battle against God’s enemies (Nusayris, a derogatory term for the regime’s Alawite sect; apostate Kurds; atheists; reports of sentries on the frontier; emotive suicide missions)

These themes represent the four corners of a window, enabling us to understand how the Islamic State views itself and the broader struggle for Syria. The United States has not effectively used Twitter to exploit the weaknesses of IS claims of military strength and the prosperity of the caliphate, which should be a crucial part of the broader attempt to reduce IS local and global appeal. It is these two points on which this article will primarily focus.

Conversely, the Islamic State’s portrayal of its religiosity and its fight against the enemies of Syrian Sunnis are more difficult to directly undermine on social media. Perceptions of U.S. irreligiosity, its Christian heritage and a thawing relationship with Iran problematize American attempts to address Sunni religious expression using Twitter. However, understanding these latter themes is crucial to other U.S. efforts, such as addressing deep Sunni grievances within the framework of a future political transition and in strengthening alternative Sunni forces—not just Kurds.


Exploiting Existing Vulnerabilities