Anatomy of an ISIS Twitter campaign

This blog was originally posted as part of Portland’s 2016 How Africa Tweets study.

ISIS and Al Qaeda have been locked in a battle for legitimacy since Al Qaeda disavowed ISIS in February 2014. In return, ISIS has consistently attacked Al Qaeda, both on the battlefield and ideologically, and sought to pull terrorist groups into its orbit.

Al Shabaab, the terrorist group based in Somalia, has been a focus of this fight for influence. Having already won the allegiance of Boko Haram, ISIS has consistently tried to woo the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Shabaab. So far this campaign has produced limited success.

A flashpoint in this battle occurred on 20 March when ISIS supporters launched a Twitter campaign aimed at undercutting Al Qaeda’s support in Somalia. This episode is a strong case study of ISIS’ social media tactics and demonstrates its efforts to increase its share of the digital conversation in Africa.

#The_Jews_of_Jihad_in_Somalia

The call to action began with a simple graphic posted through official ISIS channels and by known ISIS supporters, which told followers to support the “official campaign” to “expose Al Qaeda” using the hashtag “#The_Jews_of_Jihad_in_Somalia”. (An ISIS cleric first levied this insult against Al Qaeda in January.)

This call first appeared on Twitter around 6pm GMT, along with digital toolkits posted to online repositories and filled with eye-catching graphics and videos and stock language for making the ISIS argument. It was picked up within minutes and 725 tweets using the hashtag were posted within an hour. This exploded to over 1,980 tweets posted in the second hour, with almost 2,015 and then 1,515 tweets posted in the two hours after that. In total, almost 10,000 tweets were posted within 24 hours of the campaign’s launch. A significant percentage used the rich content distributed in the digital toolkits.

First, it highlights ISIS’ concerted effort to grow its share of the digital conversation in Africa. Under increasing pressure in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has shifted significant resources to establishing a base in Libya. This was explicitly announced in January when the group started talking about the “#The_Islamic_Maghreb” on Twitter and aimed threats at countries in the region, and has only increased in the months since.

Second, it shows how overmatched technology companies can be when confronted with such an avalanche of content. Over 75 per cent of the tweets posted over those 24 hours came in the first five hours of the call to action. Twitter takedowns eliminated just 142 of those tweets over that first day – a drop in the bucket and certainly not enough to stem the tide. This number increased as time went on, but the damage had already been done.

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