Islamic State’s social media resilience
The unmasking of an English-speaking online jihad supporter based in India, who was popular among foreign fighters in Syria, casts light on the decentralised nature of the media operations of the group known as Islamic State (IS).
The Twitter activist Shami Witness played an important role in amplifying the message of IS and had over 17,000 followers before he disappeared – more than some of the key jihadist media groups.
But he was just one of an army of online supporters the group relies on to spread its message in a range of languages – none of whom operate officially on behalf of the group.
IS was forced to abandon its official presence on Twitter in July due to a sustained clampdown by the site administration following the group’s rapid expansion across Iraq and Syria.
It then experimented with a string of other platforms like the privacy-focused Diaspora and the popular Russian VKontakte, where accounts were also soon shut down due to their involvement in the distribution of high profile beheading videos.
Since then, IS appears to have resorted to underground channels to surface its material, which is then disseminated by loosely affiliated media groups who are capable of mobilising a vast network of individual supporters on social media to target specific audiences.
Trending hashtags – particularly those popular in the West – are hijacked to reach unsuspecting audiences, and videos removed from YouTube and other platforms are swiftly made available again.
Shami Witness, who Channel 4 News has revealed to be a Bangalore-based company executive, was one of the most popular voices among the English-speaking jihadist community – an audience IS has targeted with slick propaganda from its multilingual media outfit Al-Hayat Media.
He would repeatedly promote new IS propaganda to help widen its reach.
A study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ISCR) earlier this year showed him to be the top disseminator of jihadist propaganda followed by foreign fighters in Syria.
After being outed, Shami Witness appears to have deactivated his account. But his disappearance is unlikely to have much impact on the spread of IS’s message.
IS supporters and media support groups are regularly suspended from Twitter and many have developed a series of tactics to maintain their presence there, regularly changing their user names and handles or setting up a string of back-up accounts.
The group’s ability to keep getting its message out in the face of intensive counter-measures is due to the agility, resilience and adaptability of this largely decentralised force – many of whom, like Shami Witness, may be operating from the comfort of their homes or offices, far from any front line.