The fast advance of ISIS fighters in Iraq might have taken some by surprise, but it did not come unannounced.
As they staged their offensive on the ground, quickly conquering one town after the next, members of the al Qaeda splinter group launched an equally efficient public relations war — trumpeting their arrival on Twitter like the most social media-savvy marketing company.
The phenomenon of fighters taking their message to social media is not new, and the war in Syria has been fought over the control of narratives as much as of territory. The offensive in Iraq is opening up a new battlefield both on and offline, however. And, so far, ISIS militants have proved that they are absolute pros at the Twitter wars.
The ISIS social media rollout in Iraq included thousands of Twitter mentions — 67,000 and counting in the last week alone. It also waged a campaign of retweets that catapulted an image of the group's flag flying over Baghdad, with the ominous warning, "Baghdad, we're coming," to the top of Twitter's Arabic search results for the city, according to CBS News.
'Everyone needs a social media campaign today, even political movements in the Middle East.'
In yet another sign of its social media smarts, ISIS even put out an Android app — called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or simply Dawn — which allows the group to tweet through the personal accounts of its growing base of online fans.
So while the group's military advancement sent Iraqi authorities scrambling to contain them and the rest of the world fearing the next Iraq war, ISIS also proved to be a product of its times.
"Everyone needs a social media campaign today, even political movements in the Middle East it seems. The type of highly focused marketing and social media community building as exhibited by ISIS is something that brands strive for to get their message across," Dinah Alobeid, a spokesperson for social analytics company Brandwatch, told VICE News. "Taking out the political and human rights implications of this situation, ISIS has a keen sense of how to attract their target demographics, keep them engaged, and spread their messaging and news via social to highly interested individuals."
ISIS' strength lies in the recognizability of its brand, the reach of its network, and its capacity to boost its Twitter presence through a combination of carefully crafted "official" messages, as well as the buzz and volume of fans sharing content across the globe.
'Whether or not their social media presence is exactly reflective of their numbers and power, ISIS have commandeered a great deal of online space.'
"There are different types of ISIS divisions on social media: the ISIS official media account, which publishes all its video releases, ISIS province accounts, which publish live feed info and pictures, the ISIS mujahideen accounts, where fighters talk about their experience and daily life, and ISIS supporters, who counter Western, Shia, and tyrants' propaganda and lies," Abu Bakr al Janabi, a prolific ISIS supporter who often translates and distributes the group's messages, told VICE News.
"Social media is good for building a network of connections and recruitment," he added. "Fighters talk about experiences in battle and encourage people to rise, and supporters defend and translate ISIS statements."
This approach — a controlled central message, but a diversity of voices — seems to have worked well.
"While it's been reported by the media that the group is using their app to overinflate their reach, it has definitely sparked online recognition of the group and now its social media strategies. Whether or not their social media presence is exactly reflective of their numbers and power, ISIS has commandeered a great deal of online space," Alobeid said. "From a marketing perspective, it's obvious ISIS has a calculated approach to social media that looks to recruit new members and connect interested individuals to create a united front. They are positioning themselves as a transparent entity that shares news and updates for their cause."
'ISIS is the best group in terms of using social media, no doubt, and in Iraq they already have the monopoly.'
And while ISIS might have some competition in Syria, it hardly does in Iraq.
"ISIS is the best group in terms of using social media, no doubt, and in Iraq they already have the monopoly," Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who has closely followed Syria's militant groups on social media, told VICE News. "Advertising themselves openly has a great advantage in terms of gaining them prominence and potential outside support, particularly with the building of this state that they are constructing in their territory."
Last week, Twitter shut down several ISIS-affiliated accounts citing its policy against threatening posts — but that has hardly stemmed a flood of graphic images of the group's advance in Iraq. Dawn, which was launched in April, reached peak use last Tuesday, when ISIS fighters stormed Mosul and the app's users put out almost 40,000 tweets in one day, according to the Atlantic.
By nature, social media campaigns relinquish control of the message over to users (remember the #myNYPD's Twitter fail?), and ISIS is no exception.
"It's clear who's managing the official accounts, it's centralized management, but then there are the fan boys, and no one has any control over what they do," Al-Tamimi said. "I think actually the fan boys tend to reflect more the side of ISIS that is less open to things like compromise with other groups, that is a lot more partisan."
Like Twitter users around the world, ISIS members have also taken to the platform to share pictures of their daily lives — with selfies, food pictures, and vintage filters.
"Every now and then ISIS fighters give advice to stick to Islamic principles, but some supporters might get too emotional," al Janabi said, adding that "all accurate news comes via ISIS official accounts."
Official handles are usually more on point with their messages, though Al-Tamimi recalled one such account tweeting out a picture of fighters chilling at a swimming pool in Lattakia, a few months back.
"But showing the commodities that you can get, that's not from ISIS official media, it tends to be more from ISIS fighters themselves advertising the luxuries that they can enjoy to attract people, saying that it's not all a nightmarish, harsh life, that you can get a hold of things like chocolate bars," he said. "The problem with that is that there's the risk of being seen as caring more about the material world. They had debates among the fan boys about whether this engaging in blunt materialism is acceptable, and there was a counter campaign that tried to show the difficulties faced by fighters in Syria."
'The cats in the pictures have nothing to do with the media, they try to imitate Abu Huraira, a companion of the Prophet.'
While they regularly share images, often gruesome and photoshopped, of martyrs and enemies, ISIS members also behave much like everyone else on Twitter, and some even pointed out ISIS's apparent love of cute kitten pictures — the social media cliché par excellence.
"How does this one work?
— Abu Fulan al-Muhajir (@Fulan2weet)June 12, 2014
But that, al Janabi said, has nothing to do with an attempt to go viral.
"The cats in the pictures have nothing to do with the media, they try to imitate Abu Huraira, a companion of the Prophet, who is known for being fond of cats," he said. "Even the Prophet had cats."
'We are normal people who love to goof around with each other.'
At the end of the day, he added, ISIS fighters and supporters were just "normal" guys — using Twitter like anyone else.
"We are normal people who love to goof around with each other, joke, laugh, and so on," he said. "But when it comes to the protection of our people, then we are very harsh against the enemies."
And there are plenty of tweets and Instagram posts of beheaded and crucified enemies to testify to that.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi