Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Extremist Rhetoric and Social Media: The Virtual Battlefield

Extremist Rhetoric and Social Media: The Virtual Battlefield

Poetry contains deep cultural traditions in Arabic culture and within the enigmatic ranks of ISIS. Islamist groups produce vast quantities of poetic verse, the majority of which is disseminated via social-media accounts and globally recognized platforms like Twitter and Facebook. A March 2015 report from the Brookings Institution estimates that there at least 46,000 Twitter accounts run by supporters of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Recently at the 2015 Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management conference, discussions behind the scenes revealed a piqued interest in the way extremists use social media to disseminate their rhetoric and recruit individuals. Although mainly an association for humanitarian initiatives and new technologies, the ongoing developments in Syria and Iraq has drawn attention from this humanitarian – technical community. In fact some of the most intriguing discussions taken place after hours, regarded the lack of effective government policies to deal with ISIS's  proficiency with Twitter and looking to crowd sourced communities to observe how users respond to and dispel the rhetoric of ISIS.

For every piece of ISIS literature that makes its way onto the net, there are a hundred commentators and skeptics that answer, many of whom feature anti-ISIS slurs such as “Daesh”, a derogatory term to identify ISIS members as outsiders of the global Muslim community. The result is a virtual battlefield of rhymes and lyrics reminiscent of a Shakespearean play, albeit with modern undertones that include rap videos and gangster-esque selfies posted online.

Western countries like the United States do see the value of this but are more or less at a loss on how to operationalize their digital fight into policy. Rick Stengel, who oversees the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), and whose portfolio includes social media culture-jamming, believes that “creating communities of interest, supporting positive voices, and narrowing the space that violent extremists have to work in” are among the core strategies to fighting ISIS propaganda.

But there are deeper structural problems that include government intrigues on who should run the official departments and how tightly they should coordinate with other agencies. Former head of the CSCC Alberto Fernandez on Wired [6] magazine expressed “more important than ideologies and ideas are how those elements are packaged, delivered and digested for wider audiences.... we are all prodded and driven by narratives – by stories, images, slogans, memes, and stereotypes.” This means performing some typical Twitter fact-checking and #realkeeping when ISIS recruits post new material.

Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel recently published an article for the New Yorker that brings attention to “ the swagger of ISIS poetry”. Indicating that behind all the rhetoric there are powerful anxieties, as jihadists have elected to set themselves apart from the world and wider society, including their families and their religious communities. “By casting themselves as poets and cultural actors with deep roots in the Arab Islamic tradition, the militants are attempting to assuage their fears of not really belonging."

While western governments decide on how best to shape their digital social media policies into actionable tools to counteract the ISIS propaganda machine, we may likely see an increase in informal, citizen driven responses in the form of digital battles that come in the form of nuanced verses and street-tweets.

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