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ISIS Runs A Dark Media Campaign On Social Media


The war that Islamic militants fight is not just on the streets of Iraq's cities and towns. ISIS, or the Islamic State, is also waging a dark public relations campaign. Images of two American journalists being beheaded have turned up on social media platforms - Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. And that's different from what we've seems from other terror groups. Clint Watts joins us from New York. He's a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and formally with the FBI. Thanks very much for being with us.

CLINT WATTS: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Doesn't putting all these images on social media leave a trail?

WATTS: It does. And one of the odd things about the social media use of ISIS is it is exactly providing us in the West, and particularly the United States, a window into what's going on in Syria and Iraq right now and, a lot of times, in places that there isn't much coverage either by journalists or probably even by the government. But part of their motivation for going is that they get to communicate back to their communities that they're participating. And so they're not really that worried about being seen there, and in fact, are often times very proud of participating in this jihad.

SIMON: What is the Islamic State doing with propaganda that is different, and do you have any indication as to how deeply it might or may not be succeeding?

WATTS: I would say that the process by which terror groups, for a long time, have been doing recruitment is essentially the same. But social media accelerate the radicalization of recruitment. Even going back to the U.S. fighting al-Qaida in Iraq around 2004, 2005, access around the world and in a lot of these disaffected communities was very limited. Today, throughout Africa and the Middle East, almost everyone has a cell phone and many have smart phones. The other part is repetition. A video can pop up in one place and in many other places across multiple platforms, which is something that ISIS has done that a lot of other terrorist groups have not been able to do really successfully.

And all of this combines to do two things. One, it connects potential recruits to facilitators to get them to these battlefields. Today, using social media, they can actually go to platforms like Facebook and communicate with foreign fighters that are engaged in battle in Syria and Iraq right now and learn what the experience is like. And then the second part is, they get access to facilitators who say if you want to come to Syria, if you want to come to Iraq, this is how you do it. The other thing is content type. What ISIS has been able to do was use video, use audio content to immerse their potential recruitment pool in a very engaging way.

SIMON: When you say they're using content in a very engaging way, that's a phrase I know I want to be careful with. But you mean content that will bring a lot of people even if it is a morbid fascination with violence?

WATTS: Right. When I say the content is engaging to them, it connects with them. It's a shared experience. If you watched an extremist account in Syria, a lot of times you'll see them doing things that we might see here in the United States or even in Europe. You'll see them taking pictures of themselves with cats. You'll see them talking about their meal. But you also see a lot of the awful things that are going on such as beheadings.

SIMON: So you show pictures of people who play with kittens but also behead human beings?

WATTS: Absolutely. It's a very strange contrast, but you'll see them behaving in very normal ways. Then you also see them participating in this awful violence.

SIMON: Social media platforms are private companies. Why don't they just shut them down?

WATTS: The problem is the companies don't really want to do thought policing. Open displays of violence, threats of violence against other people oftentimes get these accounts thrown off-line. But beyond that, it's very tough because who's to say one person's thoughts or ideas should render them thrown off the platform versus another?

SIMON: Clint Watts. He's senior research fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute. Thanks very much for being with us.

WATTS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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