Forget hashtag diplomacy — the Islamic militant group ISIS is using its very own Twitter app to boost its ongoing takeover of Iraq and Syria.
Called “The Dawn of Glad Tidings,” the app automatically posts propaganda tweets to users’ accounts throughout the day as part of a sophisticated social media campaign designed to maximize exposure, control messaging and cultivate engagement and support.
“The app first went into wide use in April 2014,” reports the Atlantic, “but its posting activity has ramped up during the group’s latest offensive, reaching an all-time high of almost 40,000 tweets in one day as ISIS marched into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last week. On Sunday, as the media reported on the group’s advance toward Baghdad, hundreds of Dawn app users began sending thousands of tweets featuring an image of an armed jihadist gazing at the ISIS flag flying over the city, with the text, ‘We are coming, Baghdad.’”
ان كنتم لا تعلمون ثورة العراق ثورة سلام ثورة بريئة ثورة البحرين ثورة إرهابيين ملاحظه الصورة من مجازر داعش في تكريت pic.twitter.com/ishZx5GMUp
— محب للجميع (@aali4573) June 16, 2014
While Western leaders lean on hashtags when unwilling or unable to act — most recently when the Obama administration launched the wildly successful #UnitedForUkraine campaign — ISIS uses coordinated hashtag campaigns to recruit supporters, boost morale and intimidate its enemies.
It has been so successful at gaming Twitter that “the ISIS hashtag consistently outperforms that of the group’s main competitor in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, even though the two groups have a similar number of supporters online.” (RELATED: Jihadi Militants Ban Smoking And Guns In Conquered Territories)
— Jen Psaki (@statedeptspox) March 26, 2014
While Twitter has suspended several ISIS-run accounts, this app ensures that their tweets, including graphic images of torture and executions, will continue.
ISIS isn’t the first terrorist group to turn to Twitter. According to the recently released Wilson Center report “New Terrorism and New Media,” Twitter is “terrorists’ favorite internet service, even more popular than self-designed websites or Facebook.”
Terrorist use of Twitter takes advantage of a recent trend in news coverage that often sacrifices validation and in-depth analysis for the sake of almost real-time coverage. Under these conditions, especially when there are few options, mainstream media may take tweets as a legitimate news source. Terrorists repeatedly and methodically exploit this shortcoming for propaganda purposes. A prime example is the fake “breaking news” of a bomb attack inside the White House, which the Syrian Electronic Army tweeted via a hacked news agency’s account on April 23, 2013. Wall Street consequently suffered $136 billion in losses caused by panicked reactions to the hoax.
Gabriel Weimann, the communications professor who authored the study, explains that terrorists embraced social media in the wake of post-9/11 counter-terrorist operations that made it more difficult to meet in person and disrupted their existing sites — a move that has dramatically broadened their audience and amplified their message.
“Terrorist followers, sympathizers, converts, and newcomers also find in the new media a much lower threshold to access terrorist-produced and terrorism-related content than they faced in discovering and signing up for access to the hardcore forums,” said Weimann.
ISIS has been particularly brazen in live tweeting its brutality — a Twitter search for داعش (ISIS in Arabic) Wednesday afternoon yielded grisly photos of a pile of decapitated heads — hoping to intimidate its enemies into surrender. The tactic seems to be working: security forces fled Mosul and Tikrit last week, allowing ISIS to take both cities in just two days. (RELATED: Jihadis Capture Iraq City, But Obama Is Proud, Says Flack)