War Goes Viral

How social media is being weaponized across the world

By Emerson T. Brooking P. W. Singer


Like most every­thing today, the campaign was launched with a hashtag. But instead of promoting a new album or a movie release, #AllEyesOnISIS announced the 2014 invasion of northern Iraq—a bloody takeover that still haunts global politics two years later.

Revealing a military operation via Twitter would seem a strange strategy, but it should not be surprising given the source. The self-styled Islamic State owes its existence to what the internet has become with the rise of social media—a vast chamber of online sharing and conversation and argumentation and indoctrination, echoing with billions of voices.

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 Humvees.

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.”

Tweets, photos, and other visuals from ISIS and ISIS-friendly accounts feature a mixture of slick production and attempts at intimacy and personal connection.

It will not be the last. The fate of the self-declared caliphate, now under the assault of nearly two dozen national militaries, is uncertain. Yet the group has already proved something that should concern any observer of war and peace, law and anarchy. While the Islamic State has shown savvy in its use of social media, it is the technology itself—not any unique genius on the part of the jihadists—that lies at the heart of the group’s disruptive power and outsize success. Other groups will follow.

And not just terrorist groups. This is only the beginning of a larger revolution, one that is already starting to reshape the operations of small-time gangs on one end of the spectrum, and the political and military strategies of heavily armed superpowers on the other.

More than a year ago, we set out to understand the use of social media as both a tool in conflict and a shaper of it, tracking how online chatter has begun to intersect with real-life violence in dozens of armed confrontations around the globe. In doing so, we sought to untangle a seeming contradiction. The internet has long been celebrated for its power to bring people together. Yet as it turns out, this same technology is easily weaponized. Smartphones and social apps have clearly altered the nuts and bolts of violent conflict, from recruiting to battlefield reporting. But the greatest effects may be more fundamental, expanding the causes and possibly the incidence of war, and extending its reach. Social-media platforms reinforce “us versus them” narratives, expose vulnerable people to virulent ideologies, and inflame even long-dormant hatreds. They create massive groundswells of popular opinion that are nearly impossible to predict or control.

Social media has already revolutionized everything from dating to business to politics. Now it is reshaping war itself.

“A Bond of Perpetual Peace”

War, as the 19th-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously put it, is simply the continuation of politics by other means. Social media, by democratizing the spread of information and erasing the boundaries of time and distance, has expanded the means, transforming war to an extent not seen since the advent of the telegraph.

In 1838, Sidney Morse wrote to his brother Samuel to congratulate him on the recent unveiling of the telegraph, which Sidney called “not only the greatest invention of this age, but the greatest invention of any age.” He prophesied, “The surface of the earth will be networked with wire, and every wire will be a nerve. The earth will become a huge animal with ten million hands, and in every hand a pen to record whatever the directing soul may dictate!”

In his 1998 book, The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage describes how starkly and suddenly the telegraph altered many aspects of life. A culture of tinkerers and hackers arose around the device, with its own lingo and even its own courtships and romances, conducted in Morse code. Businesses could track their supplies with a level of accuracy hitherto unimaginable, and coordinate far-flung operations more closely. Newspapers, which had barely contained any international coverage before, were suddenly stuffed with reports of recent events taking place thousands of miles away. Overnight, these distant occurrences assumed great weight in political discourse, even though their actual effect on people’s lives had not changed at all.

As telegraph cables crisscrossed the globe, many observers felt that history had turned a page. According to the historian Johanna Neuman, great thinkers of the day believed that “the knowledge relayed by the telegraph would make nations so conversant with the national interests of their one-time enemies that war would come no more.” The first transatlantic cable was laid between North America and Europe in 1858. In an exchange of congratulations, President James Buchanan expressed to Queen Victoria his belief that the telegraph would “prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument designed … to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.”

Within a few days, Britain would use the same cable to send orders to its military.

The telegraph swiftly became an important new tool of war. Beginning in the Crimean War (1853–56), what might once have been broad instructions, traveling weeks by sea, became, to the lament of officers in the field, micromanaged battle orders sent by cables from London to Russia. A new kind of generalship emerged during the Prussian Wars of Unification (1864–71), as the movements of whole armies were coordinated in real time. In the American Civil War (1861–65), Confederate and Union soldiers, each seeking an edge over the other, laid some 15,000 miles of telegraph wire.

The telegraph also reshaped the public experience of war. One journalist marveled, “A battle is fought three thousand miles away, and we have the particulars while they are taking the wounded to the hospital.” This immediacy, in turn, introduced new opportunities for ideologues and media entrepreneurs to stoke public outrage and even enthusiasm for war: The competitive “yellow journalism” that preceded the Spanish-American War (1898) is the classic example. As news reporting increasingly became a contest of speed, accuracy became a secondary concern. Members of the Associated Press were so intent on keeping readers informed of every lurid detail of the conflict with Spain that they chartered boats that sailed frantically through naval battles to reach the nearest telegraph station.

Citizens around the world were suddenly privy to “news”—whether true or not—that had once been the exclusive domain of monarchs and ministers. Meanwhile, information obtained by newspapers could drive government action. The world had shrunk. The pace of international events increased.

Similarly seismic changes are now being wrought by social media. Today, there are 3.4 billion internet users, rendering Sidney Morse’s bold prediction of “ten million hands” rather modest by comparison. Roughly 500 million tweets are sent each day. Nearly seven hours of footage is uploaded to YouTube each second, in up to 76 different languages. With 1.7 billion active accounts, Facebook is the largest “country” in the world. According to Pew, clear majorities of American Twitter and Facebook users now get their news from these platforms. Fifty-nine percent of American Twitter users rely on the service to follow news events as they happen in real time.

Yet we are not at the crest of the wave. Nearly half of the world’s adult population is still not online. Many of the new connections will be concentrated in regions most susceptible to violence and conflict. According to the International Telecommunication Union, internet use in the developing world grew by an average of 16 percent each year from 2005 to 2015. The U.S. National Intelligence Council has estimated that more people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East have internet access than have electricity.


Such global connectivity has long stood as Silicon Valley’s holy grail, in the pursuit not just of profits but also of peace. It is why Google seeks to release giant balloons into the stratosphere, beaming internet access down to people who lack it, and why Facebook is building solar-powered drones to do the same.

In 2005, when “The Facebook” was still a Palo Alto start-up, a college-age Mark Zuckerberg was interviewed by camcorder in the office lounge, red Solo cup in hand. “The goal wasn’t to make an online community,” he explained of his new platform, but “a mirror of what existed in real life.”

Social media is indeed a mirror, one that reflects all manner of human interests and ideas, invariably extending into the realm of politics and violence. Last year, the most-talked-about event on Twitter was not a silly meme or a feel-good story: It was the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, in which 130 people were killed by a coordinated team of isis gunmen. Millions watched as images and snippets of video captured the chaotic scenes. The most-powerful updates came from the victims trapped in the Bataclan theater, who naturally turned to social media to plead for help, even as jihadist murderers stalked the halls.

The duality of human nature is readily apparent when social media fixates on conflict. Thanks to the internet, war crimes have been laid bare by citizen reporters examining evidence from thousands of miles away, and a voice has been given to suffering civilians who previously had none. Strangers can be moved to tears by the image of a drowned Syrian toddler washing up on the shores of Turkey, and the world has never seemed so small. But social media has also opened new avenues for extraordinary cruelty. In January, Syrian-regime loyalists, learning of a rebel-held town that was starving under siege, taunted the residents by posting pictures of what they were eating for dinner.

Indeed, the more we’ve learned about behavior on social media, the more apparent it has become that the mirror is distorted—or rather, that it distorts us. For all the hope that comes from connecting with new people and new ideas, researchers have found that online behavior is dominated by “homophily”: a tendency to listen to and associate with people like yourself, and to exclude outsiders. Social networks are bad at helping you empathize with people unlike you, but good at surrounding you with those who share your outlook. The new information ecosystem does not challenge biases; it reinforces them.

A review by the analytics firm Gnip (since acquired by Twitter) of 11.5 million tweets during and about the November 2012 Israeli-Palestinian clash, for instance, found that only 10 percent of this conversation occurred between supporters of the opposing sides. A similar examination of online activity during the 2014 race-related protests in Ferguson, Missouri, found that liberals and conservatives in the U.S. cited or put forth completely different facts and arguments and seemed hardly to acknowledge each other’s existence. Since May of this year, The Wall Street Journal has run a project called “Blue Feed, Red Feed,” showing side-by-side Facebook streams of news sources popular with, respectively, liberal and conservative audiences. The resulting social-media feeds look like they’re from two parallel universes.

Within a circle of friends or like-minded acquaintances, social media certainly fosters connection. But the further one zooms out—to whole societies or the course of global affairs—the more this connection is marred by tribalism and mutual mistrust.

This problem is particularly disturbing because of another feature of social media: Its users are not passive consumers, like TV viewers or radio listeners or even early internet users. Via platforms that range from Facebook and Instagram to Twitter and Weibo, we are all now information creators, collectors, and distributors. Civilians in conflict areas can take and publish inflammatory photos of collateral damage; suburban teens in Marseille or Seattle can follow the lives and losses of individual combatants and interact with them directly. And of course, messages that resonate can be endorsed, adapted, and instantly amplified.

Both ends of the communications process have been democratized in a way that no prior technology has accomplished. Social media has made a great many of us participants in, as well as observers of, conflict. The implications of this wide-scale participation extend far beyond the virtual realm.

War: The Viral-Marketing Campaign

How can a group use social media to involve people deeply in a distant conflict—and even persuade them to join it? As a case study, consider the Islamic State.

The isis propaganda machine is equal parts frightening and surreal: Prisoners who are about to be beheaded are fitted with lavalier microphones; synchronized murders are set to booming chorales; brutal clips of death and martyrdom are stitched together with Final Cut Pro. Just how did a throwback death cult with a seventh-century worldview come to dominate 21st-century social media so swiftly and completely?

While isis may represent something new in its targeting of both physical and digital domains, it hasn’t, in fact, invented anything new. Its members, in the words of the Australian counter-terrorism researcher Haroro Ingram, are “more strategic plagiarists than geniuses.” isis has simply adapted the time-tested tactics of terror to the new rules of the social-media age.

Terrorism has always been theatrical. Some 2,000 years ago, Jewish zealots known as the sicarii, or “dagger men,” stalked Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Rather than killing quietly in alleyways, they made sure to slay Roman sympathizers before a crowd. The aims of these town-square assassinations were the same as those of the Islamic State’s YouTube beheadings: to send a signal to as large an audience as possible.

The concepts behind ISIS’s viral success are the same ones used to push a new Taylor Swift album.

It was inevitable that terrorists, eager to spread their message, would be among the first to recognize the promise of social media. What we know as the Islamic State emerged from a mix of former lieutenants of Saddam Hussein and vicious jihadists of al-Qaeda in Iraq. They found common cause in Syria, broke with al-Qaeda, and were joined by a fresh wave of Millennial-generation recruits who had come of age during the 2011 Arab Spring—and who had seen the attention-grabbing power of Facebook and Twitter firsthand.

William McCants, a scholar of militant Islam at the Brookings Institution, has tracked the evolution of terrorist propaganda, from audiotapes passed around by hand to hour-long sermons on VHS snuck out of Afghanistan to digital videos that look like movie trailers, tailored for sharing. isis mastered the latter, and this mastery, McCants says, helped it supplant al-Qaeda as the brand in favor among a new generation of jihadists. “Al‑Qaeda videos look like something you’d see on Charlie Rose or PBS NewsHour,” he says. “isis videos have more of a Vice feel about them: They’re very visceral, very immediate. They’re from the battlefield.” But McCants downplays the suggestion that this formula makes isis some kind of social-media innovator. The technologies to create these types of videos are now cheap and readily available. “It’s not mind-blowing—it’s what a normal PR firm might do.”

Indeed, strip away the religious claims and the on-camera killings, and the isis online playbook looks much like any of the dozens of social-media-marketing “how‑to”s circulated by consultants. The principles that have guided the Islamic State’s viral success are the same ones used to publicize a new Taylor Swift album or the latest Star Wars movie. They are out there for anyone to copy.

Two media specialists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cori Dauber and Mark Robinson, have studied how the Islamic State builds its message, and discovered a consistent and conscious effort to mimic the “Hollywood visual style.” Colors are saturated, contrasted, and crisp; subjects are kept in clear and tight focus. A former isis cameraman, now in a Moroccan jail, described to The Washington Post how he worked with nine other crew members to document the massacre of 160 captured Syrian soldiers in the desert south of Raqqa. Like the camera operators who film The Bachelor and other reality shows, they wove among “participants,” recording from a host of different angles, seeking the perfect shot.

A study of 1,300 isis propaganda videos by Javier Lesaca, a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, found that 20 percent were directly inspired by Western entertainment: Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, American Sniper. The irony is as rich as it is gruesome—a group that sprang from al-Qaeda in Iraq copies shots from a Clint Eastwood film about an American serviceman who won glory while fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The Islamic State’s careful audiovisual engineering hints at a future of war propaganda that will lean almost entirely on evocative and shareable images—everything from doctored photographs to video screenshots to infographics. isis militants have discovered, as marketing experts have long known, that compelling imagery matters far more than any accompanying text in determining whether or not something goes viral. Indeed, when the Turkish military launched an August offensive into Syria to sweep isis militants from its border, it cribbed many of the very same online tactics, creating a Twitter account for the operation that pushed out everything from soldier selfies to dramatic, staged videos of commando raids.

During a recent campaign in Syria, the Turkish Armed Forces borrowed a page from ISIS’s playbook, using social media to instill a sense of unopposable force.

But the Islamic State also understands the importance of intimacyand authenticityto social-media outreach. Professionally choreographed videos are complemented by rougher, first-person shots of chaotic gun battles. And both are posted by actual fighters, who also opine on everything from religion to potato-peeling duty. For years, a Dutch jihadist fighting in the isis ranks maintained a personal Tumblr bursting with arresting images: his fellow fighters at rest; his newborn baby; even his cat, stretched alongside a suicide belt.

These qualities have lain at the heart of the Islamic State’s success in online recruiting. Contact with sympathizers has often been made in an open forum, and then moved to private message exchanges. Plenty of radicalized Westerners, pulled back from the brink of recruitment, have described online relationships that unspooled over weeks or months. In time, the jihadists living on the other side of the world (or in some cases, pretending to) ceased to be seen as recruiters. They became friends—or at least the social-media version of friends.

While choreography might seem to be in opposition to authenticity and intimacy, their clever combination is actually how the pop singer Katy Perry has accumulated more than 90 million Twitter followers, more than any head of state. Her tweets are usually casual and abbreviated, as if dashed out to a small group of friends. They intermix promotion with mundane, real-life moments. Likewise, the isis fighters who talk up the glory of the caliphate also muse online about, say, the death of the actor Robin Williams and their childhood love of his movie Jumanji. This sense of authenticity wins and inspires followers in a way that official government press releases cannot


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