Global, decentralized and enterprising, fundamentalist groups are exploiting social media like never before. ISIS, in particular, is famed for its use of social media. Through it they have revolutionized extremist propaganda, recruitment, training, fundraising, communication and targeting.
Until recently, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates regarded the Internet as an opaque place. Extremists met virtually in 'dark' spaces, disseminating material whilst hidden anonymously. These old methods were laboriously thorough. Forums were heavily password protected. Users deployed proxies to hide Internet Protocol addresses to prevent tracing, whilst access was restricted to use by a computer.
ISIS has changed all that. Instead of fearing an open, public web, they have embraced it. Nothing exemplifies this quite like their use of social media.
Activity, particularly on Twitter, has shown that ISIS does not want to solely operate in online nooks, crannies and back alleys. The group has instead embraced the Internet as a gateway. An opportunity to promote, intimidate and radicalize.
This new approach is highly proactive. Instead of waiting for web-surfers to stumble onto their websites and propaganda, they now actively lure individuals and groups to their pages.
Twitter has arguably become their favourite means of achieving this. The group is believed to own a startling 50,000 different accounts and these tweet up to 100,000 messages a day. Clearly, the group would have a significant presence simply through its volume of activity. However these tweets are also smartly deployed. Rather than being spewed out blindly, content is attached to trending topics like 'World Cup' or 'Ebola'.
Along with relentless output and cynical hashtag high jacking, the group has also become proficient at using Twitter to broadcast and glorify its own physical actions. The advance on Mosul saw ISIS describe its aggressive progress through issuing 40,000 tweets a day, all without triggering spam controls. This 'live commentary' style enabled global supporters to follow and comment on the advance as if it was Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.
Crucially, ISIS is profoundly adept at communicating on a peer-to-peer level. Videos adopt a deliberate 'Call of Duty' style through exaggerated sound effects, explosions and scoring. Tweets utilise internet slang and phrasing. Last year ISIS gained media attention for its Islamic State of Cat account, which matches photos of cats from its Middle Eastern strongholds with 'meme-style' captions.
For nascent Jihadists, Twitter often works as the first step. Once engaged, ISIS operators deploy online grooming to heighten emotional and intellectual bonds. These are then reinforced by a sense of community, grown through online groups.
Other organisations are now following suit. Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Nusra, a Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, are all on Twitter. Perhaps the most infamous imitator is the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen, a group which has two accounts. On January 14 the group tweeted responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks which killed 17 people. The notoriety of these attacks was also heightened through the platform, with the global Twitterati expressing their anger and condolences through '#JeSuisCharlie'. This represented another benefit of Twitter to extremists; it is a platform for the non-converted to heighten both the outrage and attention given to fundamentalist actions.
Extremist use of Twitter represents an entirely new era for the Internet. They are the first group to step out onto social media and effectively play on the front foot. Undoubtedly, this has been a propaganda success for them. Their social media presence has attracted recruits, adoration and anger. The platform provides an unlimited opportunities for the group and its imitators to peacock from one atrocity to the next. For Twitter, the question is now how far, if at all, should it attempt to curtail and censor the activities of extremist groups and their supporters.