Friday, November 4, 2016


Social media has empowered isis recruiting, helping the group draw at least 30,000 foreign fighters, from some 100 countries, to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. It has aided the seeding of new franchises in places ranging from Libya and Afghanistan to Nigeria and Bangladesh. It was the vehicle isis used to declare war on the United States: The execution of the American journalist James Foley was deliberately choreographed for viral distribution. And it is how the group has inspired acts of terror on five continents.

So intertwined are the Islamic State’s online propaganda and real-life operations that one can hardly be separated from the other. As isis invaders swept across northern Iraq two years ago, they spammed Twitter with triumphal announcements of freshly conquered towns and horrific images of what had happened to those who fought back. A smartphone app that the group had created allowed fans to follow along easily at home and link their social-media accounts in solidarity, permitting isis to post automatically on their behalf. J. M. Berger, a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, counted as many as 40,000 tweets originating from the app in a single day as black-clad militants bore down on the city of Mosul.
Media reports from the region were saturated with news of the latest isis victory or atrocity, helping to fuel a sense of the Islamic State’s momentum. There was no time to distinguish false stories from real ones. Instead, each new post contributed to the sense that northern Iraq had simply collapsed in the face of the isis onslaught.

And then it did. Terror engulfed Mosul, a city of 1.8 million people. The 25,000-strong Iraqi garrison may have been equipped with an arsenal of American-made Abrams tanks and Black Hawk helicopters, but it was disoriented by reports of the enemy’s speed and ferocity. Already beset by low morale and long-festering corruption, it crumpled under the advance of a mere 1,500 isis fighters, equipped mostly with small arms. The Islamic State was left to occupy the city virtually uncontested, seizing vast quantities of weapons and supplies, including some 2,300 Humbles.

In the abrupt surrender of Mosul and collapse of defending Iraqi forces, one could find echoes of the similarly shocking fall of France to the 1940 German blitzkrieg. The Germans relied upon the close coordination of tanks and planes, linked together by radio. Radio gave their forces speed—and also the ability to sow fear beyond the front lines.

isis spread a similar panic online. Immaculately staged photos, filtered through Instagram, transformed a ragtag force riding in dusty pickup trucks into something larger than life. Armies of Twitter bots twisted small, one-sided skirmishes into significant battlefield victories. Hashtags were created and pushed (and others hijacked) to shape and hype the story. Through this fusion of activities, isis stumbled upon something new. It became, in the words of Jared Cohen, a former State Department staffer and now the director of Jigsaw (Google’s internal think tank), “the first terrorist group to hold both physical and digital territory.”

The ATLANTIC Journalists EMERSON T. BROOKING and P.W. SINGER educate us the latest and potentially most humanly destructive uses for social media, HOW SOCIAL MEDIA GOT WEAPONIZED: WAR GOES VIRAL, in the issue of The ATLANTIC Magazine.


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