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The Islamic State, Hungarian Porn, and Why the US State Dept. Just Isn't Cool on Twitter

A strange exchange took place when the State Department’s Think Again Turn Away feed responded to an Islamic State message that allegedly showed a woman being raped by soldiers.

by Colleen Curry
Nov 25 2014, 9:45pm

The US State Department used an anti-terrorism Twitter feed to take an account affiliated with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to task for purportedly using an image sourced from Hungarian pornography and passing it off as a portrayal of abuse of Sunni Muslims.

The strange exchange was spotted last week when the State Department's Twitter account Think Again Turn Away responded to a message put out by the "State of Islam" that featured a photo allegedly showing a woman being raped by a group of soldiers.

Think Again Turn Away tweets regularly about the Islamic State's human rights abuses and its killing of innocent people, but it uses a youthful, informal vernacular that isn't typical of a government-affiliated mouthpiece.

Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who is now the director of special projects at the Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence firm, has been studying the Islamic State's social media campaign since the early summer. Despite the better efforts of Think Again Turn Away, he believes it is unlikely that any counter-programming by the US government on Twitter will successfully undermine the Islamic State's reach on social media.

"I don't know how effective that was. There are a lot of lame exchanges between them," Skinner told VICE News. "The State Department is trying to use reason, and reason doesn't work in 140 characters or less. It's perfect for angst, for what ISIS wants to use it for. But good is boring. Their target audience is 14 to 26-year-olds, and they don't really care what authority says."

ISIS fighters and their friends are total social media pros. Read more here.

Skinner noted that most of the people following the State Department's social accounts are from the government, think tanks, or the media. The pro-Islamic State accounts have a very different audience. Aside from occasional exchanges like the one about the repurposing of Hungarian porn, the two don't really overlap.

"There are some ISIS guys trolling them, which is kind of funny, but for the most they're talking to separate audiences," he said.

James Robbins, senior fellow for national security affairs at the Foreign Policy Council, also doubts the effectiveness of the social strategy.

"As you engage them, you legitimize them," Robbins told VICE News. "For the mighty State Department to go down to the level of the lowly ISIS and engage them on social media, it's kind of a battle you can't win. In my opinion, the way to deal with ISIS is to have their accounts taken down — not engage them, but have them taken down." 

The Islamic State is adept at using somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 individual accounts around the world, according to Skinner's estimate, to spread quick, snappy messages that play to the type of anti-authoritarian audience that thrives on Twitter. The tweets are often paired with striking images, and are often even inflected with humor. The terror group's presence is also sizable on Instagram and Tumblr, and is expanding onto direct messaging apps like Snapchat.

The Islamic State is successfully recruiting European women to come join the caliphate. Read more here.

The social media operation allows the militants to "sow chaos in Western societies in a way that they can't really do otherwise," as Robbins put it in another interview with VICE News earlier this month. "It's very difficult to travel from ISIS's area of control to us — that would be a hard thing to do — but it's easy to reach out through social media and try and influence someone here to act in their name. It's very dangerous."

He noted that even if Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr were to shut down known Islamic State propaganda accounts, the memes and messages they have put out would nevertheless already be picked up and distributed widely by thousands of other users, including members of the media.

The conversation moves so quickly, with the pro-Islamic State accounts seemingly making a big deal out of every issue and then moving onto the next one that by the time the State Department can post a response, it makes them seem outdated.

"You can't try to out-cool them," Skinner said. "The State Department is as far away from cool as possible."

This was reflected in the reaction to Think Again Turn Away's charge that the Islamic State was looking to rough pornography for its propaganda inspiration. Setting aside the irony of Islamist terrorists turning to smut for material, many users took glee in remarking on the State Department's apparent eagle eye for Hungarian porn images.

ISIS has a really slick and sophisticated media department. Read more here.

It's important to note that many of the accounts retweeting Islamic State propaganda are not really members of the Islamic State but sympathizers from around the world. Actual Islamic State militants are focused more on fighting and terrorizing than they are on managing social media feeds.

"A lot of it is kids just spouting off. It's a bit like wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt — you know, it's a 'rage against the machine'-type environment," Skinner remarked. "Among them, there are vulnerable people who plug into it, and they're the ones who do the lone wolf attacks."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen