Claire Wardle on ISIS' Social Media Strategy

As the Islamic State continues its attacks in Iraq, Syria and now France, Columbia News asked professors from a number of disciplines to evaluate the threats posed by the group. Claire Wardle, senior research scholar and research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

William McGuinness
November 18, 2015
Claire Wardle

Q. How does ISIS use social media channels to bring its message to a global audience, and recruit new members from far corners of the world?

A. ISIS is incredibly sophisticated in terms of their understanding and use of social media and encrypted online communications. They distribute slick recruitment videos with compelling narratives, polished production techniques, and handsome 'actors' appealing directly to targeted audiences. Compared to Al-Qaeda’s amateurish films captured on low-quality recording devices and smuggled out to news outlets, the films, images and messages created and distributed by ISIS via social media channels, rival some of the very best creative content produced for brands.

Q. What specific methods do they use?

A. The key to their success is identifying target audiences and appealing to them on different platforms. For the disgruntled and disenfranchised, they produce content in local languages with recent recruits who can say, “I was you, look at me now.” They carefully seek out people who might identity with ISIS. The reach and granularity of social media means they can find and talk directly to people in every corner of the globe.

Q. How broad is their strategy?

A. The scale of their operation is staggering. They have multiples of every available social media channel. They work on the well-known platforms, as well as the less well known, including small social photo sharing sites. They understand where potentially sympathetic communities might live online and often target online message boards and chat rooms, moving people to personalized chat-app messaging when they can. And when details get specific they move to encrypted communication platforms. They understand audience engagement in a way that many brands or even news organizations do not. They are providing targeted messages to specific audiences, using tried and tested persuasive techniques. Ultimately their power is that for the people they target, they appear to be listening to them in ways that they don't feel they've been listened to before. That is what makes them so successful and so hard to counter.