This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
ISIS is probably one of the most digitally-savvy terrorist groups out there. Ever since they successfully occupied parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014, ISIS propaganda on social media has played a central role in its recruitment, causing controversy on nearly every platform imaginable. And as social media continues to evolve, so do ISIS’ propaganda tactics. Now, they’ve infiltrated Gen Z’s favorite app: TikTok.
Amaq News Agency, a news outlet linked to ISIS, and Dabiq, a magazine used by ISIS for radicalisation and recruitment, are largely responsible for bringing the terrorist group’s message to social media. With these agencies, ISIS has been able to create high-quality videos and become the first terrorist group to utilise the encrypted instant message platform, Telegram.
ISIS’ propaganda tactics have proven to be quite effective, surpassing the success of Al-Qaeda and garnering support among hundreds of thousands of sympathisers worldwide. During their heyday between 2014 and 2015, the number of reported ISIS combatants reached 200,000.
Nevertheless, ISIS’ appeal has faded in recent years. But the fact that they’ve turned to TikTok may indicate that they’re not ready to give up. Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that ISIS was using the platform for recruitment purposes. At least two dozen ISIS-linked accounts were identified and subsequently suspended. These accounts posted content that depicted beheadings and military activities.
To make matters worse, these videos were packaged in typical TikTok fashion, with music and effects that appeal to young people. Some videos also show members singing pro-ISIS songs.
“We swear to be loyal until death,” some members sing in Arabic.
"The rhyme, beat, evocative lyrics, and punchy delivery are especially appealing to youth," Oxford University expert on extremism Elisabeth Kendall, told the Wall Street Journal.
Although their policy prohibits content that supports terrorism, TikTok management has kept relatively quiet on the matter.
"Content promoting terrorist organisations has absolutely no place on TikTok,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement to The Sun. "We permanently ban any such accounts and associated devices as soon as identified, and we continuously develop ever-stronger controls to proactively detect suspicious activity.”
While the actual number of ISIS-affiliated accounts and the virality of their content are still unknown, this issue is still cause for concern, considering TikTok is one of the most popular social media platforms among young people. For instance, Indonesia alone had 10 million users in 2018.
This is certainly not the first time ISIS has been caught spreading propaganda on social media platforms. In 2016, Twitter erased 325,000 accounts promoting ISIS. After developing an artificial intelligence system capable of detecting ISIS content, Facebook reported it had deleted 3 million posts related to ISIS and Al-Qaeda activity in the first quarter of 2018.
Torik Triyono, Director of Law Enforcement of the Indonesian Agency for Combating Terrorism (BNPT), said that simply deleting ISIS-linked social media posts and accounts is not enough, as ISIS is capable of creating new accounts at a faster rate than they can be deleted.
“Counter-narrative is necessary to resist the narrow-minded messages on religion and terrorism on social media,” Triyono told VICE.
In addition to deleting extremist posts and accounts, Facebook addressed this need through its Counterspeech campaign, which partners with NGOs to combat extremism. Google has also invested in efforts to redirect audiences of extremist videos to more positive content.