The war against the Islamic State seems to have hit a turning point, both on the battlefield and on social media. A new report (PDF) from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) shows that official ISIL propaganda on social media is dwindling.
The CTC analyzed more than 9,000 ISIL messages with images and videos shared online in an 18-month period beginning January 2015. It found a steady decline in the production of visual media messages since August 2015, when the terror group pushed out 700 such posts in a single month. By contrast, ISIL released only 200 posts with images a year later in August.
The report attributed a marked reduction in certain propaganda themes to struggles within the group. More than half of the messages coded for the report were images or clips depicting daily life in the caliphate, often as organized and peaceful, presumably to further its goal of luring sympathizers to Iraq and Syria. For instance, it has shared photos of ice cream factories or infrastructure projects.
By contrast, the CTC found that the number of media releases focused on ISIL’s governance—for instance, images of ISIL soldiers distributing food and money, fixing roads, or issuing punishments for civilian crimes—dropped over the 18-month period, while the frequency of military-themed messages remained steady. Daniel Milton, the center’s director and author of the report, read this as a sign that ISIL was “struggling to maintain the outward appearance of a functioning state.”
ISIL’s most attention-grabbing images and videos, those that featured gruesome beheadings or executions and include an actual dead body in the frame, have been surprisingly rare. Fewer than 10% of the messages fell under this category, according to the report. The volume of these posts remained steady, but the characters within them changed. In 2014, most broadcasted executions were of anti-ISIL fighters, including prisoners. In January 2016, the number of “spies” caught in ISIL territory and killed in media releases began to outpace that of enemy soldiers.
Either way, ISIL has kept its messengers relatable. “They may be Iraqi and Syrian locals speaking in Arabic or recently arrived foreigners from abroad,” Milton explained. “Regardless of the individual, it seems that the group has decided that its message will be better received if those conveying it look more like the intended target audience.” This approach has lent its campaign “an aura of inclusiveness and breadth” lacking in propaganda from Al-Qaeda, ISIL’s predecessor. That group’s online media typically featured long-winded speeches by terrorist leaders.
The decrease in the volume of messages may be a sign that ISIL has less to brag about, according to Milton and other ISIL experts. There may also be less time for propaganda when ISIL is under physical attack.
Pushback by social media companies has contributed to the decline. This summer, Twitter announced it had suspended 360,000 terror-inciting accounts between mid-2015 and August 2016. Daily suspensions were up 80%, mostly thanks to new proprietary spam-fighting tools, the company said.
Both Twitter and Facebook say they have proactively blocked accounts connected to Islamic State terrorists, rather than wait for other users to report them. Last year, in response to such efforts, ISIL moved some of its propaganda to platforms like Whatsapp and Telegram, which offer more protection from outside surveillance. When Telegram announced last September it had created private channels that would allow followers to broadcast to groups of followers, ISIL quickly set up shop on the app, the researchers note. Telegram reportedly became the communication tool of choice for organizers of the Paris attacks in November 2015.
J.M. Berger, a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism who focuses on social media, noted a significant decline in the group’s tweeting activity, partially due to Twitter’s efforts to suspend accounts.
Google is also in this fight. Its think tank Jigsaw began testing a “redirecting method” that inserts anti-propaganda ads in Google search results for 1,700 keywords related to the Islamic State. The impact of that program remains unclear (paywall).
Even if its propaganda has declined, ISIL’s message is sure to live on, Milton said, especially in the minds of impressionable children: ”The psychological effects of the group’s control over what people read, watched, and heard will likely outlast its physical control of the territory.”