From Twitter to Telegram, Islamic State (ISIS) sympathizers continue to set up camp on social media platforms around the world. While some of the outlets are far-reaching and transparent, others are insular and protected. The range of platforms, the diffusion of sympathizers, and the sheer volume of content make it difficult for governments and private companies to contain the online ISIS threat. To begin doing so, it is necessary to understand the external factors that have shaped ISIS’s communications strategy.
On a strategic level, ISIS is winning the war on social media with effective branding, information distribution, and agenda-setting. For example, in the wake of violent attacks, it has become commonplace for counterterrorism analysts to search for press releases claiming affiliation by Amaq News Agency. In an analysis of the ISIS manual, Media Operative, You Are a Mujahid, Too, the terrorism researcher Charlie Winter argues that the organization’s marketing approach allow ISIS to “forcibly inject itself into the global collective consciousness.” But the group is fundamentally dependent on platforms it cannot control, which leaves it vulnerable to changing regulations and security measures. For example, in August 2015, U.S. authorities arrested Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla, after the couple disclosed their plans to travel to ISIS-controlled territory to undercover agents on multiple social media platforms, including Twitter. In Syria, a targeted strike reportedly killed Junaid Hussein after the British recruiter and hacker left an Internet cafe in Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital.
ISIS is winning the war on social media with effective branding, information distribution, and agenda-setting.
From content-based regulations to account suspensions, Twitter’s well-publicized efforts to deconstruct ISIS’ presence on their site have yielded mixed results. Since mid-2015, Twitter has shut down 360,000 accounts for violating the company’s policies related to the promotion of terrorism, but sympathizers continue to create new accounts every day. In a similar vein, Facebook and Google have, to varying degrees of success, promoted countermessaging campaigns. The U.S. government’s approach, colloquially known