What causes an 18 year old boy from France to board a plane to Turkey, cross the border into Syria and join a fanatical terror organization named the Islamic State of whose practices include rape, murder, beheading and the destruction of historical relics that have withstood the decline and fall of numerous empires? According to conventional wisdom the answer is social media. ISIS, it appears, is a social media wizard which operates an international propaganda conglomerate capable of inciting hate, and violence, among young people.
A recent study by the Brookings Institution indicates that during 2014, there were at least 46,000 ISIS-supporting twitter accounts operated by ISIS followers throughout the world. These accounts operate as an interconnected social network which transfers information within the ISIS community. Yet such accounts are also used in order to disseminate ISIS social media content to a global audience of millions. Thus, ISIS operates through a network and by a network.
According to a former senior adviser at the State Department, ISIS social media content is effective because “it is organic, it’s from the audience that it is going after…These young people understand youth frustration, they understand the fascination with violence, they understand that imagery and graphics that you see in Hollywood will attract these people.”
Much has been written about ISIS YouTube videos. Such videos, which are considered to be of very high quality, showcase ISIS philosophy and its rule of law. One such video depicts terror operatives encouraging people to pray at mosques by day while carrying out operations against drug dealers by night. Most of these videos are translated into many European languages as ISIS means to recruit young people from all over the world. Currently, the terror organization even publishes its own English language online Magazine named the Islamic State Report.
If one accepts the notion that ISIS draws its strength from social media, then he may also assume that social media is the appropriate tool through which to combat ISIS. This was the rationale behind a recent White House summit devoted to fighting violent extremism by countering ISIS’s online narratives and recruitment. Who needs boots on the ground when we have young people in front of screens?
I for one find the current discussion surrounding ISIS’s use of social media to be simplistic at best and condescending at worst. Simplistic in the sense that exposure to social media content does not explain why people join a murderous organization whose calling card is the burning alive of captives. Studies have shown time and again that while social media is an effective tool for raising awareness to issues, its ability to motivate action is limited. Most people who become involved in political or religious activities due to online content are those who were already inclined to do so. Foreign Ministries using social media to practice digital diplomacy know all too well that there is a monumental difference between getting your message “out” and having that message influence the actions of followers.
Within the discussion of ISIS’s social media wizardry there is a condensing assumption that young people are devoid of reason and susceptible to well produced content which feeds on their craving for violence. ISIS social media followers have essentially been reduced to witless youngsters being injected by the modern day Hypodermic Needle– twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Some have even suggested that joining ISIS is the 21st century expression of teens’ need to rebel against their parents. Instead of running away from home or going to the Summer of Love, the twitter generation rebels through mass murder.
There are root causes that might better explain why people do in fact join ISIS. One might be the reality in countries such as Syria where a horrid civil war forces one to take up arms in order to survive. The choice is therefore between ISIS and other militant organizations which may be just as violent yet less active on social media. Other causes may include the disintegration of artificial countries established during the First World War, the collapse of governments following the Arab Spring and lack of integration of Muslim youths in Western countries.
Finally, it’s possible that joining ISIS is part of a more profound process- the search for identity in a globalized world. As Manuel Castells argues, “In a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity — collective or individual, ascribed or constructed — becomes the fundamental source of social meaning”. ISIS may thus meet an inherent psychological need of young people, not the need to kill but the need to belong to a community and to define one’s identity.
ISIS uses social media in order to brand itself as an omnipotent global terror organization. It strikes in Syria and Iraq as well as in the US and Australia. It tweets from Baghdad and from Hawaii and from London. It is online all the time. Such branding is substantially different than that of Al-Qaeda. BIn-Laden’s terror organization was branded dormant; it lay hidden in the caves of Afghanistan only to surface for brief moments in which it unleashed violent attacks. ISIS is ever present, ever active and always on the offensive.
The present discourse surrounding its social media wizardry only adds to the myth of ISIS while offering solutions that will not be able to defeat it.
There is a need to address the root causes that have given birth to ISIS. And social media can be an important tool in this process yet only if it is used to listen and talk with online communities. The coalition countries combating ISIS should therefore focus on stabilizing the Middle East while reaching out to their domestic Muslim populations via social media and listening to their needs.
Social media can also be used in order to counter ISIS activities in the Middle East. Yet this cannot be achieved through well formulated tweets, high quality videos and Facebook posts that go viral. Twitter and Facebook should be used in order to communicate and converse with young people across the region. True dialogue is based on mutual respect and a desire to openly exchange opinions. Foreign Ministries looking to use social media in the online struggle against ISIS should abandon the desire to influence the witless teens and focus on hearing youngsters’ opinions on events shaping their lives and searching for joint solutions to the challenges facing the Middle East.
Dialogue between Western nations and Muslim teens is the only way forward.