The US Department of State (DoS) has begun a campaign of shock and awe against ISIS, the jihadi group currently making startling territorial gains in Northern and Western Iraq. However this time it's not bombs and tanks fighting the insurgency, but the most fearsome weapon of all: Internet trolling.
While the possibility of Western airstrikes and drone support is being mooted by politicians, and 300 US military personnel have been dispatched to Iraq as military advisers and embassy security, the rebels of ISIS have been waging a sophisticated and targeted social media campaign proclaiming the new state they hope to carve out of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria, attracting recruits and spreading their jihadi message.
To counter the ISIS social media offensive, the DoS’s official verified Twitter account (@ThinkAgain_DOS) has been singling out accounts promoting the insurgent group and posting counter-propaganda, including graphic images of atrocities and messages in Arabic. The account is currently using the name "Think AgainTurn Away".
The US has been using this form of psychological warfare since September 2011, attempting to co-opt the social media message from the hands of radical Islamists, whose use of social media has become increasingly adept in recent years.
Over the last few weeks, which have seen the Islamist group seize control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, and Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein, ISIS has also been making gains on social media. The group has apparently been gaming Twitter’s algorithms, asking their followers to tweet on certain hashtags repeatedly at specified times of day in order to appear on Twitter’s trending topics list.
This tactic, beloved of Justin Bieber and One Direction fans, has seen a sinister new life in the new Iraqi insurgency.
It’s not just social media that has been of interest to the jihadi group either. One of ISIS's most successful online ventures is an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or just Dawn. The app is an official ISIS product that’s advertised as a way to keep up on the latest news about the jihadi group.