“ISIS in many ways are the natural evolution of how Islamist groups have been operating for a long time, which is to say, they recognise fully the potential of modern technology. They’ve always understood that modern technology in trying to push out a message of propaganda is very useful for them” so says Jamie Bartlett of the Demos thinktank The difference for ISIS, according to Bartlett, is how they have used social media marketing techniques to get their message out in a very focussed and sustained way. They have exhibited great skill at using hashtags in order to coordinate the accounts of tens of thousands of people through developing their own google android app which allows ISIS’ social media managers to have access to supporters accounts and to simultaneously tweet on their behalf to even more people. The impression this gives is that ISIS has more ground support than it really does. Most of the content ISIS disseminates is in Arabic. Much of it comes from Kuwait in particular. As Twitter is blocked in many parts of Iraq, the Baghdadi hashtag with its message, “We are coming for Baghdad” while aimed at frightening people in Baghdad was most likely meant for a Western audience. The ISIS strategy has been to create the appearance that their operations in Iraq are part of a huge Sunni uprising in order to give themselves legitimacy. In an Occidental move, Bartlett suggests that the coordinators of ISIS’ media campaigns are – in the main – young men who have grown up in the West and for whom social media and app development is completely natural. Bartlett claims that this is not happening on the Dark Net – it’s just that the protagonists are difficult to find. Given the recent highlighting of the NSA’s enclosure of the internet, this might stretch public incredulity too far. Bartlett does highlight an interesting point about the success of white supremacist groups in creating platforms to bring like-minded people together on bulletin boards during the dawn of the internet in the 1980s.
However, ISIS hashtags are visible and not the exclusive province of a secretive Dark Net for those with passwords who are in the know but there as mass exposure via Twitter. Pictures depicting beheadings and children supposedly being buried alive, effectively conveying ISIS as gristly Arab Oriental despots for a Western audience who, through associations with cinema have come to accept the Arab psyche with a sadistic, senseless blood-thirst circulate for everyone to see. The images hark back to Valentino’s debased Sheik leering, “My men are going to kill you, but – they like to amuse themselves before.” Edward Said points out in Orientalism how Arabs in the newsreels are always shown in large numbers because Arabs are allowed “No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures,” Said writes “represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures.” And indeed this is exactly how ISIS’ manoeuvres appear in the rolling news – hopelessly eccentric in the age of aerial warfare guided by laser-sighted satellites which show an ISIS technical with all its men exploding in a cloud of desert sand – no matter how savvy their social media campaign might appear to be, they are no match for the might of the US. The images of scimitar-slashing, camel-marauding Arabs wrapped in black headgear of cinema of yore has now been replaced on the rolling news by modern Jihadists in technicals, brandishing machine guns waving black flags like pirates of the desert. Nothing has changed. The war continues but the imagery is meant to justify why the West must continue its slaughter. It does this by conjuring up the age-old European fear that Muslims will take over the world.
ISIS’ social media campaign blitz on Western Twitter has, coincidentally, prepared us all for the US military blitzkrieg of ISIS. Result! With minimum opposition to the meddling of the US and NATO allies in Iraqi affairs, we all breathe a sigh of relief once we think Iraq’s Yazidis have been spared from the bloodthirsty ISIS, while in Baghdad an embattled Maliki faces a chorus of calls for his resignation which is, coincidentally, the result sought by the US administration and US interests in the region from the very beginning. A week ago nobody in Europe knew or cared one iota about the Yazidis. This is weighed against a countervailing representation in Western media of the complete callousness of the Arab world towards their own – the ineffectual leadership of Maliki in Baghdad, Assad’s barrel bombs in Syria and the complete disregard of a tiny self-interested Arab ruling elite in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the people of Gaza. This is the hot wind Israel hopes to sail on even as it brandishes “its terrible swift sword” against a people it holds hostage in Gaza by the constant repetition of talking points of Hamas’ disregard for civilian life as they feign sorrow for the deaths of women and children in UN shelters, so cynically described as collateral damage by the likes of Markp Regev and co. So bam!
All these representations collide together leaving observers punch-drunk at the speed with which these different strands have come together. And… by a supposedly weakened imperial power. I want to put forward the beginning of an argument which goes something like this: Empire displays through the ISIS operation that they are becoming skilled at using social media on a global scale. It understands that what counts is not what we think but what we can be made to think. The US is also beginning to skilfully use the the speed with which social media tools can shape how we think and feel. In fact, I think that social media shows in the case of ISIS how the responsibility for decision making can be whisked away from the collective to a state agenda; utilising the most visceral and spontaneous collective of emotions on social media which then drive the news agenda. In my view, this is something new which ISIS has exposed. More later. While people marched on the streets of capitals around the globe in protest against Israel’s decimation of Gaza, empire utilised social media to advance its objectives in Iraq using the same tools we thought we could use to change the world.
This synchronisation of emotions over horrific crimes that ISIS was tweeting moved beyond the kind of standardised emotions we are normally used to dealing with. It moved so fast that Obama was able to carry out a “humanitarian intervention” in the blink of an eye. Outpacing the speed of the movement that had mobilised globally to stop intervention of NATO in Syria.