Terrorism

Iraq blocks ISIS-linked social media accounts

By Khalid al-Taie

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An Iraqi officer gives a lecture to a group of soldiers on confronting ISIS's psychological warfare and propaganda efforts on February 15th. [Photo courtesy of the Iraqi Ministry of Defence]

Since defeating the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) on the ground, Iraq has been engaged in continuous efforts to keep the group from seeking recruits and circulating its toxic ideology and propaganda online.

These efforts have included multiple successful attempts to block the group's access to various social media platforms, where it has sought to post messages that are then picked up and amplified by its hardline supporters.

The Digital Media Centre on April 20th announced that its digital security team, which operates as part of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service, had shut down around 6,500 ISIS-linked accounts on Twitter after three months of investigation.

Of those, the team closed down 682 accounts the group and its supporters had been using as a conduit between social media platforms -- taking ISIS propaganda from Telegram and sharing it on Twitter.

ISIS relies heavily on these social media platforms, which enable it to "surpass geographical barriers and reach a wider audience", said Abdul Salam al-Samer, who teaches media studies at the University of Baghdad.

Social media accounts have become the extremists' main promotional tool "in spite of strenuous and efficient efforts at the local and international levels to track and shut them down", he told Diyaruna.

"We are faced, however, with a group that is quite adept at using the internet to promote itself and has the capability to evade detection and surveillance," he said.

Exploiting coronavirus pandemic

In an April 16th statement, the Digital Media Centre said it had observed "an increase in the number of social media accounts of ISIS members and their followers, particularly on Facebook".

Though the social media giant "had closed down thousands of ISIS pages over the past couple of years", extremists have taken advantage of the disruption to the monitoring of online accounts amid the coronavirus crisis, al-Samer said.

The group and its supporters have created new social media accounts and reactivated older ones to promote their violent extremist ideology, he said.

ISIS "has strengthened its online presence by opening more digital accounts and websites as the world is currently preoccupied with the coronavirus crisis", said Issam al-Fayli, who teaches political science at al-Mustansiriyah University.

The extremist group has exploited the pandemic, even through the content it has been distributing, in an effort to spread its ideology and attract new recruits, he told Diyaruna.

The Global Fatwa Index, which is part of Egypt's Dar al-Iftaa Fatwa Observatory, analysed ISIS content during the coronavirus pandemic by monitoring its online publication, al-Naba, and the topics its supporters discuss in online chat rooms.

In an April 21st report, the observatory said that at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, ISIS rhetoric had been fragmented and off message, with most of it focused on "gloating" about countries affected by the virus.

Later on, its rhetoric became "more stable, and focused on the best way to take advantage of the virus", the observatory report said.

Stricter measures are needed

ISIS's online propaganda is a dangerous matter that requires "stricter measures" to deprive it of a free space to share its content, al-Fayli said.

Al-Samer said the danger in having such misleading and inflammatory messages in circulation online is that some people take this "as religious facts" and can become indoctrinated by this type of deviant ideology.

"Young people who are attracted to ideological causes are the segment most likely to be influenced by such messages," said journalist Hadi Jalou Merhi.

ISIS "spares no effort in finding the most effective means to reach its goal", he told Diyaruna, which includes seeking ways to propagate its extremist ideology online.

He stressed the continuing need to disrupt the group's online activities and weaken its propaganda machine.

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