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Quartz Weekend Brief—Twitter jihad, mobile finance, disrupting disruption, “smart dumb”

The American and French revolutions had their pamphleteers. Soviet dissidents had samizdat. Jihadists spread their message on audio and video cassettes, before switching to YouTube. Every generation’s rebels and insurgents have used the medium of the day to get their message out. So it should be no surprise that ISIL (or is it ISIS?) uses Twitter.

But as the Sunni militants continued their assault on Iraq this week, we’ve learned just how sophisticated they are. Not only does every wilaya (administrative district) in Iraq and Syria have its own Twitter feed (pdf, p. 3); the organization is also adept at gaming Twitter. One method is an app ISIL supporters can download—named “Dawn of Glad Tidings”—which then tweets on their behalf, magnifying the group’s visibility. And compared with other extremists, ISIL is exceptionally prolific, flooding the social web, often with extremely graphic images. ISIL also issues a rather slick annual report that lists every one of its thousands of attacks as methodically as the US State Department.

All this provides a wealth of intelligence on ISIL and its allies, including how other Islamists think of them (not very highly, it seems). This is a headache for social media companies, which try to shut down accounts filled with pictures of beheadings, only to have intelligence agencies ask them not to. Indeed, it might seem a little odd for a body that depends on evading the authorities to be so very public about itself.

But this barrage of activity also serves to intimidate foes, whip up fans, and get funders reaching for their wallets. Like corporations, NGOs, and governments everywhere, ISIL is playing in the global information space, and it’s playing to win. —Gideon Lichfield

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

How to manage your finances with a $20 mobile. Large portions of the developing world use mobile phone payments based on a simple text-messaging system. Leo Mirani explains how this forms the basis of an entire burgeoning financial industry—and why it’s found a home in Africa, but can’t make a dent in India.

Starbucks is more marketer than benefactor. The coffee chain this week offered to pay for its employees’ college education. Tim Fernholz writes that the offer comes with a side order of caveats and bundle of upfront costs for would-be students, and is part of a long history of Starbucks social programs that don’t quite deliver.

How one man’s paralysis led to a better wheelchair. Architect and designer Michael Graves spent three years recovering after an untended sinus infection (yes, a sinus infection!) left him paraplegic. Lisa Selin Davis describes how that led him to reinvent the terribly dated and uncomfortable hospital wheelchair, and to devote a large chunk of his career since then to making places of healthcare less horrendous.

The world’s 16th most valuable soccer team is in China. Alibaba has taken over e-commerce in China, and now it’s moved into sports by purchasing leading club Guangzhou Evergrande. Gwynn Guilford breaks down the (substantial) price paid, and the reason the team won’t challenge for international greatness any time soon.

Lessons from a 600 year old shareholding company. People think of the Dutch East India Company as the first modern corporation, but a French mill had a board of directors and COO over a century earlier. Max Nisen looks at a few centuries of data from the surprisingly rational shareholders of the Société des Moulins de Bazacle.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

Disrupting “disruption.” Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation has become a mantra of modern business. Jill Lepore in the New Yorker takes it apart, arguing that it’s based on circular reasoning and shaky evidence and has little predictive power. An angry Christensen responds via an interview with Drake Bennett in Businessweek.

How GM silenced a whistleblower. This month a damning report revealed the “pattern of incompetence and neglect” that led GM to build millions of cars with dangerously faulty ignition switches. Tim Higgins’ story in Businessweek about a GM safety inspector who spotted the problem right at the outset, and was sidelined when he tried to raise a stink, makes for sobering reading.

Are carbs that bad? Low-carbohydrate diets like the “paleo” diet are often based on dubious claims such as the idea that we’re not “evolved” to eat carbs. Melinda Wenner Moyer in Aeon looks at the science. While still quite patchy, it suggests that while refined carbs are definitely bad, more primitive and complex ones may not be.

The feeling of being a coder. David Auerbach in Slate reflects on the almost spiritual experience of computer programming, which can induce a state of mental focus and absorption that shuts out the world around it. “I’ve never heard an artist describe a trance that measured up,” he writes.

A paean to being dumb. Kenneth Goldsmith, an American poet, paints a mesmerizing verbal tribute to art and creativity that doesn’t try for cleverness. “By trying so hard, smart smart really misses the point. Smart dumb is The Fugs, punk rock, art schools, Gertrude Stein, Vito Acconci, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Seth Price, Tao Lin, Martin Margiela, Mike Kelley, and Sofia Coppola. Smart dumb plays at being dumb dumb but knows better.”

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, disruptive ideas, and dumb ideas to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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