It seems a little distasteful to acknowledge that those with violent intentions are really rather smart. It’s more comforting to portray aggressors as being mindless thugs. So, it is with mixed feelings that I read an account of ‘The Dawn of Glad Tidings’, an Android app created by the Islamist militia ISIS.
On downloading and installing the app, you must consent to allowing ISIS wide reaching access to your data and you commit your Twitter account to the ISIS cause. Each time ISIS tweets, the app automatically re-tweets via your account. Tweets come thick and fast, sometimes in bursts of up to 40,000 per day and include images, videos and threats against the Iraqi people and Baghdad regime.
The author of the story, J.M.Berger*, who has written extensively on the links between extremism and technology, describes this ISIS tactic as “gaming” Twitter.
He explains further social media tactics used by the organisation such as hashtag campaigns that willfully skew the results of trend tracking sites, thereby creating a feedback loop which further accentuates the distribution of the ISIS messages.
Digital media analytics tools have been used by intelligence gathering organisations to find threats and hostility for a number of years. Semantic and statistical analyses can filter millions of public posts and articles online to identify evidence and quantify risks. I’ve seen these tools in action and the results are often startling.
One chilling example concerned Nigeria. Violence from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) reached horrific new extremes on October 1, 2013. But unambiguous threats had been picked up in the UK using media analytics tools nearly a month earlier.
And it’s not just the military who use these defensive techniques. Commercial organisations also employ sophisticated analytics tools to acquire information about events that might affect their revenues or reputations. Applications range from getting advance warnings of protests and demonstrations through to identifying early indications of companies experiencing financial distress.
So, it’s perhaps inevitable that the armed groups themselves are using these powerful technologies to further their aims. But what’s truly significant about this story is not that combatants are using social media to incite violence or that they are publishing grim imagery that’s grabbing the attention of news agencies and politicians around the world. What’s really important to acknowledge is that a relatively small fanatical group is creating a noise that is hugely disproportionate to the size of the organisation and the scale of its support.
Barbaric, ruthless and misguided they may be, but ISIS sure as hell know how to gain share of voice with a low budget a social media campaign.
* J.M. Berger is also editor of the excellent INTELWIRE.com and author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam.