How much has social media helped the rise of Iraqi extremists ISIS?

How much has social media helped the rise of Iraqi extremists ISIS?
By Chris Harris
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Iraq has been plunged into a fresh crisis after ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) seized towns in the north of the country.

The Sunni extremists – who grew out of the Islamic State in Iraq, an al-Qaida affiliate – then published pictures which appeared to show its fighters massacring Iraqi soldiers, according to the New York Times.

Terrifying #ISIS photos appear to show a mass execution in Iraq:

— CNN International (@cnni) June 16, 2014

The US has responded by sending troops back into Iraq, but, away from military intervention, experts are mulling over ISIS’ social media strategy.

Twitter accounts such as @Islamic_States have posted pro-ISIS material, such as the cartoon below of its forces heading to Baghdad.

#الدولة_الإسلامية_في_العراق_والشام#ISIS: we are coming Baghdad!

— أنصار دولة الإسلام (@Islamic_States) June 13, 2014

The Iraq government has appeared to block access to social media websites in light of ISIS’ postings, according to reports.

Peter Leahy, a security expert, told SBS: “I think we can quite confidently say there’s a web war going on right now and it’s been going on for a while.”

Professor Leahy, director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, claimed ISIS was using the likes of Facebook and Twitter to help with recruiting, propaganda and their operational activities.

He added: “I think we’ve seen Twitter and Facebook have worked to take them down because of the graphic nature of some of the things they have been posting on there.

“I think there’s been a reluctance previously but we’re now seeing action by the Maliki government to make sure Facebook, Twitter and other things are not used to the advantage of the ISIS people. Obviously that’s going to be inconvenient for a whole range of Iraqis who use the web but I think in this event – which I think you can only call a huge problem, this is a period of severe national security threat – the Maliki government is quite warranted to shut them down.”

Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London, told the Guardian: “We often talk about the “social media strategy” of jihadist groups. At the official level, with institutional accounts, there is clearly a plan: to rebut criticism, promote the group’s narrative, and spread its image as a benevolent vanguard. They recognise this as a necessity.

“But savvy organisations such as Isis are also acutely aware of the dangers of allowing individual fighters unfettered access to social media. The real challenge for these groups in future years will not be how they use the internet, but how well they can manage it.”

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