In the wake of the most un-silly ‘silly season’ for many years, with war in Gaza, Ukraine and across Syria and Iraq, this autumn offers us a chance to take stock of the lessons learned so far from these many crises. More than any other in human history, the conflict taking place in the regions of Syria and Iraq under occupation by IS or ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has been played out in real time on social media. The world has watched in horror as fighters from across the world including the United Kingdom have tweeted horrific and shocking photos. For ISIS, social media has become a vital tool in its global propaganda campaign. As a decidedly unconventional organisation, lacking in receptive international partners or the infrastructure for traditional means of mass communication, ISIS has found social media sites to be enormously useful. With a young membership, conversant with the internet and its own insular culture, it has managed to harness effectively the transcendental nature of social media to communicate with an enormous audience.
In the West, this online campaign has provoked outrage. How can those who seemingly oppose every facet of Western society be using the products of Western companies to propagate their message of hate? The presence of a group as universally reviled as ISIS on Western-produced social media raises interesting questions both about the inability of companies to regulate and control their sites and the inability of Western governments to block ISIS’ use of those sites.
On the corporate side, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have all been criticised for their tardiness in taking down accounts posting violent and offensive material. What limited action they have been able to take has been frustrated by the militants’ ability to constantly set up new accounts just as quickly as the old ones are closed. Most interestingly with near total freedom over the medium, ISIS is now able to disseminate its propaganda to a target audience who know where to look. ISIS has created its own app – ‘Dawn of Glad Tidings’ – that instantly messages centrally produced communiqués to all those who sign up and furthermore there are even Twitter accounts specific to the provinces controlled by ISIS, keeping regional supporters updated on local news and progress.
By its very nature social media exists as an open platform where central control was thought to be both unnecessary and undesirable. It enables non-traditional organisations to communicate their aims and promote their actions outside both the control of national governments and traditional media. This has been shown by the fact that so far the only robust Cyber response to ISIS thus far has been from the hackers collective ‘Anonymous’ which has begun to attack those who state their support for ISIS. The failure of the corporate and governmental response to ISIS online has provided a clear demonstration of the power and to date uncontrollable nature of social media.