If social media is the battleground for jihadist propagandizing, then hashtags are the Islamic State’s weapon of choice.
A June report (pdf) by the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank, found that Twitter hashtags were the best way to track jihadists online.
Hashtags are the Islamic State’s preferred propaganda vehicle because Twitter doesn’t block or suspend them like it does with accounts linked to terrorism; they can operate under the radar. Twitter administrators actively block profiles from known jihadists, so the Islamic State steers clear of creating “official” accounts. And Facebook’s strict regulations have driven a majority of jihadists from its platform.
Using hashtags, Quilliam analyzed 892 branded propaganda campaigns released by the Islamic State over a ten month period ending in August 2015.
It found that 78% of the content contained images, while the rest were made up of written materials, video, and audio statements. Photos and video can be powerful communication tools because they hook people and often invoke emotional responses. For example, the Islamic State uses images and video to create a sense of belonging by depicting fighters relaxing together, drinking tea, and enjoying themselves. In June, ISIS also shared photos of alleged mass killings of Iraqi militants in order to incite a backlash.
The report shows that there are six themes in Islamic State propaganda, designed to recruit people over to the jihadist group’s way of thinking. They are war; belonging; brutality, which often depicts executions; mercy, the idea that the Islamic State will be lenient to those who repent; victimhood, showing dead and injured civilians; and utopia, the most prominent, which offers the promise of a better world.