How the UK & US Are Fighting ISIS Online

Much has been written over the past year about ISIS’ use of social media to recruit young Muslims to its ranks. The use of the internet, and social media, in order to recruit members to extremist groups is by no means a new occurrence. A 2008 estimate asserted that the internet was responsible for 80% of recruitment of youths to Jihadi groups.  Indeed the use of social media by Jihadi groups was one of the contributing factors to the migration of governments online.

8 years since their migration online, both the US and UK governments are still attempting to battle Jihadi groups on social media. While both governments operate special twitter accounts meant to counter ISIS’ online narrative, they utilize social media quite differently. This post evaluates these differences.

The UK – Continues Engagement

The UK government operates the UK against Daesh twitter channel.  What characterizes this channel is ongoing engagement between the UK government and its online followers. This engagement takes two forms: Q&A sessions on twitter and surveys.

Over the past two months, the UK against Daesh channel has held two virtual Q&A sessions. During such a session on the 21st of February,  the governments was asked by followers to set a time table for the military campaign against ISIS, define the term “defeat ISIS”, elaborate on how it prevents aid from falling into the wrong hands and detail its efforts to confront ISIS’ core ideology. The answers provided by the UK government are shown below.


In addition, the UK government makes use of twitter’s new survey tool in order to learn what issues interest its followers. This use of surveys may represent an attempt to tailor social media content to the needs and desires of followers thereby creating online relationships with them. Two examples of such surveys are shown below.

At times, the UK government also answers questions posted by followers outside of pre-arranged Q&A sessions.

Although the UK government authors the majority of the content on the UK against Dahesh channel, it also frequently re-tweets from others sources. Theses re-tweets are often used to further the UK’s online narrative which seems to be composed of four arguments. First, the international coalition is making steady progress against ISIS in Iraq and Syria as is evident from the hashtag #CoalitionProgress. Second, the Assad regime cannot play any role in the future of Syria. Third, Russia is complicating the conflict in Syria rather than solving it and fourth the opposition forces backed by the UK are moderate, well-organized and are able to lead Syria.

These arguments are evident in the tweets below, some of which were re-tweeted and some of which were authored by the UK government.

Coalition Progress

Assad Cannot Play a Role in Future of Syria

Russia Complicates Conflict

Opposition Ready to Lead

In summary, the UK government seems to be using twitter in order to argue that the coalition is making progress against ISIS and that there is a moderate opposition able to lead Syria and Iraq in the day after ISIS. Through its frequent use of Q&A sessions, surveys and dialogue with followers, the UK government may be trying to build relationships with online followers rather than just influencing them with facts and figures. By so doing, the UK government may be have finally transitioned from traditional one-way public diplomacy to two-way public diplomacy.

The US- Disillusionment from ISIS

Unlike the UK, the US government seems to be using social media more conservatively. Over the past two months, the US’ Think Again Turn Away twitter channel has not held Q&A sessions with followers nor has it respond to questions and queries posted online by followers.

The US is, however, using social media to illustrate the disillusionment of many people in Syria and Iraq from ISIS. This is achieved by two means: information on ISIS’ lack of ability to provide for people living in its territories and testimonials from people who experienced ISIS’ brutality first hand.  Examples of such tweets are shown below.

The Truth about ISIS Held Areas

Testimonials of ISIS’ Brutality

Unlike the UK, the US government does not often re-tweet on the Think Again Turn Away twitter channel.  The US narrative promoted online is also quite different from the UK’s narrative as it portrays the struggle against ISIS as yet another global war on terror taking place simultaneously in many countries around the globe.  This narrative is demonstrated in the tweets below.

In summary, it seems that while both the UK and US use social media to combat ISIS,  they do so quite differently with the US employing a web 1.0 model of digital diplomacy that is based on information dissemination and little two way-engagement. Thus, the US’ digital diplomacy efforts remain focused on monologue rather than dialogue.

Comparing the US and UK Online Strategies

Following my analysis of the US and UK’s Anti-ISIS twitter channels I sought to evaluate their two different strategies (i.e. monologue versus dialogue).  I began by comparing their total number of followers which is shown in the graph below. As can be seen, the US’ channel has nearly twice as many followers as the UK against Daesh channel.


Next, I compared the average number of tweets per day published by each government over the past month as well as the average number of re-tweets and favourites their content receives. The results of this analysis are shown in the graph below.


As can be seen, the UK and US government both publish some 7 tweets per day on average. However the average UK tweet receives far more re-tweets and favourites than the average US tweet. Thus, UK followers are more likely to share digital diplomacy content with their own social networks. This is if paramount importance as people may be more willing to interact with online content shared by their “friends” than with content shared by governments that may be seen as “Twipoganda”. So while the UK has less followers than the US, these followers may be more dedicated and engaged.

Moreover, the higher levels of interaction on the UK’s twitter channel could suggest that the UK is mores successful in publishing social media content that is relevant and appealing to its followers. This is the first step towards building, and maintaining, online relationships with followers.

Next, I compared between the maximum number of re-tweets and favourites garnered by a US and UK tweet.  As can be seen in the graph below, the most appealing US tweet received 41 re-tweets and 53 favourites as opposed to 157 re-tweets and 53 favourites garnered by the most appealing UK tweet.


Finally, I analysed US and UK tweets that received a higher than average number of re-tweets. Interestingly, in both cases such tweets were an integral part of the government’s online narrative. In the US’ case, 25% of the tweets with higher than average re-tweets dealt with testimonials of people who witnessed ISIS’s brutality (see below).

In the UK’s case, 26% of tweets with a higher than average number of re-tweets dealt with Russia’s negative role in Syria and Assad’s brutality (see below)


This post compared between the US’ and UK’s digital diplomacy models currently employed to combat ISIS online. Results suggest that while both governments use twitter to create a narrative against ISIS, the UK has adopted a dialogic model based on two-way engagement with its followers while the US focuses on one-way dissemination of information.

Moreover, an analysis of February 2016 suggests that UK social media followers are more likely to engage with government  content and spread it online among their own networks.  UK content garnered substantially higher numbers of re-tweets and favourites suggesting its content is tailored to the desires of its followers, an important first step in relationship building. Thus, it is possible that the UK’s return on investment on digital diplomacy activity is higher than the US’. These results may suuport  the assumption that dialogic digital diplomacy is more effective than monologue based digital diplomacy. 

However, audiences of both channels seem to positively engage with the government’s online narrative suggesting that social media may be used to create a prism through which social media followers are to understand a foreign policy crisis, it progression and its desired outcome.

It should be mentioned that this analysis was limited to two twitter handles and to a duration of two months. Further analysis is warranted in order to better understand the models employed be each government.

Finally, one has to wonder who are the target audiences of both the US and UK governments. Given that thier social media content is in English rather than Arabic, these channels may be targeted at domestic populations rather than teens thinking of joining ISIS. As such, these channels may be part of an attempt to rally domestic support for government policies in Syria and Iraq. I shall investigate this thesis in next week’s post. Until then, find me on twitter.

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