Is ISIS’s Social-Media Power Exaggerated?

By Published on February 23, 2015

“Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL deliberately target their propaganda in the hopes of reaching and brainwashing young Muslims, especially those who may be disillusioned or wrestling with their identity,” President Obama said last week in remarks wrapping up a Washington summit on Countering Violent Extremism. “The high-quality videos, the online magazines, the use of social media, terrorist Twitter accounts—it’s all designed to target today’s young people online, in cyberspace.”

The remarks reflected what’s become something of a truism as the media routinely reports on ISIS’s “slick” propaganda apparatus, Western recruitsbecoming radicalized through social media, and the U.S. government’ssluggishness—or outright ineptitude—in fighting back on the Internet. The State Department has a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications with a team dedicated to countering “terrorist propaganda and misinformation about the United States across a wide variety of interactive digital environments,” which, it admits on the department’s website, “had previously been ceded to extremists.” That office, as The New York Times recently reported, is slated for expansion. The online information war was a focus of last week’s summit.

But what if ISIS’s much-hyped social-media juggernaut isn’t as important as all of these measures suggest?

“We know it has the potential to influence, but exactly how and at what levels are quite unknown,” Anthony Lemieux, an associate professor of communication at Georgia State University, wrote in an email. Lemieux is researching that very question, but in the meantime it’s difficult to find a reliable estimate of how many ISIS fighters have been radicalized and recruited primarily through social media. Max Abrahms, a political-science professor and terrorism specialist at Northeastern University, suspects the number is lower than many people believe. “There are other groups”—such as Boko Haram in Nigeria—“that have rapidly expanded their membership size in the absence of social media,” he pointed out to me. “Battlefield success is a better predictor” of group size than is social-media activity, Abrahms said. If, as some contend, ISIS’s battlefield momentum has already stalled, its recruitment could suffer even as its social-media activity remains constant.

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