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The Meme that Was Supposed to Take Down ISIS

An anime character has failed to gain the popularity of the extremist militant movement.

by Christopher Hutton
Sep 23 2015, 12:00pm

Image: Anonymous (if you're the author, get in touch)/ISISchan!

By now, it's well known that the Islamic State has a robust presence on social media and the internet. The State Department even recently released an internal assessment that concluded that ISIS is so pervasive online that the US has been unable to "countermessage" it effectively. But has the grassroots "weaponized meme" of ISIS-Chan fared any better?

ISIS-Chan is a green-haired anime girl who wants to convince the men and women of the Islamic State to abandon their machetes, pick up small cutting knives and enjoy some melon.

The anime character came into existence after two Japanese citizens (Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto) were executed by the Islamic State, said ISIS-Chan PR representative @ISISvipper.

Within days of Yukawa and Goto's death, dozens of anonymous artists were drawing pictures of ISIS-Chan and posting them on social media under the #ISIS hashtag. The community has slowly grown, fueled by attention from all over the world, including coverage from the likes of CNN, Buzzfeed and the Daily Mail.

ISIS-Chan will have to grow "many magnitudes" in order to make a dent

Despite the attention, however, ISIS-Chan memes never quite took off. The ISIS-Chan movement is tiny when compared to the ISIS machine. The community's hashtag #ISISchan was only posted to Twitter about 7,000 times between August 9 and September 10; a minuscule amount compared to the 697,000 uses of #ISIS in that same period of time.

And that's just Twitter. According to Emerson Brooking, a Washington-based researcher, the ISIS propaganda machine is much bigger than just Twitter.

"Not only does the Islamic State boast more than a dozen propaganda hubs, a diverse network of websites, and as many as 50,000 Twitter accounts, it also generates new headlines every day in some of the world's most prominent news outlets," he said.

Brooking also referenced a study from the Terrorism Research Initiative, which recorded a week's worth of ISIS media releases, which reached 123 in total.

If ISIS-Chan wants to successfully fight off ISIS communications, it'll have to grow "many magnitudes" in order to make a dent, he said.

ISIS-Chan is what the Japanese call a "gijinka," the personification of a particular object or community. Gijinkas have been used in the past to either mock or represent a particular communities or interests. A controversial example of a gijinka was 2014's Ebola-Chan, a female anime nurse dressed in pink, holding a skull and wearing ponytails shaped like the Ebola virus. Ebola-Chan was created by the infamous troublemaking website 4Chan as a way to amuse themselves and offend everyone else. However, these two gijinkas stand in contrast. While Ebola-Chan was clearly designed to offend, ISIS-Chan is what ISISVipper calls a "weaponized meme."

According to the main ISIS-Chan Tumblr blog, ISIS-Chan is "a personification character to disturb the propaganda of Daesh [ISIS] through google bombing." Google bombing, which aims to take over the Google results for specific terms in order to spread a message, has been used to disrupt and break down communications in a variety of communities.

After a few months of the ISIS-Chan meme, that doesn't look likely to happen. However, some people see ISIS-Chan as still having positive benefits outside of the non-impact on ISIS communications. Joel Penney, a professor of communications at Montclair State University believes that, while ISIS-Chan hasn't made a significant dent in ISIS communications, its real benefit is for the anti-ISIS crowd.

"ISIS-Chan is like propaganda," he said. "It's not about changing the minds of the opponent, it's about inspiring people who already agree with you."

Brooking believes something similar. "Initiatives like ISIS-Chan represent an opportunity for those people far away, who could otherwise do nothing, to do 'something,' no matter how small it is," he said. "And there's nothing wrong with that."