It is not new that the presence of terrorist groups in cyberspace has increased every year. Almost every terrorist group has its own niche on the Internet, which provides endless opportunities in terms of mobilization, radicalization, the dissemination of radical ideas, training, the gathering of useful information, financing, etc. Nonetheless, the Islamic State’s approach to the use of the Internet has become revolutionary and versatile compared to the online activities of other terrorist groups.
ISIS’s unprecedented reliance on social networks transformed this organization into not only the most dangerous entity, but the new jihadist global movement and brand. Its propagandist apparatus, which consists of numerous ISIS media teams, targets a particular language group of the population. As a result, under this brand name, many militants and passive supporters, who refrain from moving to ISIS held territories, have gathered around the world. Producing plenty of video, audio, and text materials on a daily basis, ISIS’s activists act as very inventive and skillful players, trying to avoid traps and barriers on social networks; thus, their skills outpace the traditionally oriented approach of security agencies.
Recently, ISIS online propagandists have adopted and implemented “online trolling” to win hearts and minds, which takes advantage of online anonymity. In fact, anonymity has a high correlation with accountability, eroding the latter. Trolling allows the infliction of a wide range of harm from posting controversial content to harassment of users. ISIS online activists have dedicated several telegram accounts to serve the following tasks: 1). organize collective reporting actions on particular public accounts on telegram, which belong to ideological competitors; 2). encourage and channel collective “comments” attacks on particular articles of media outlets in order to disrupt debates by advancing shocking ideas.
The administrators of the telegram groups create a set of rules in order to make attacks more effective. Every trolling action is conducted at a particular time, and the administrators announce daily the exact time for the next collective attack, for example, 4 pm at Mosul time. To be visible to each other, a participant of a trolling attack is advised to write the hashtag “#Islamicstate” before or after a post. This inner visibility is crucial in terms of the fulfilment of another important rule. Participants have to “like” and/or respond to each other’s posts in order to push their comments to the top.
Conducting trolling campaigns, ISIS activists target articles in accordance to several criteria. First of all, an article has to cover ISIS related or Muslim community issues. Secondly, all articles have to be written in English. Thirdly, Facebook serves as a platform for the attacks: ISIS propagandists target media outlet Facebook accounts. As a preparatory measure, the administrators have instructed group members about how to outwit Facebook policy and establish a personal Facebook account without providing a phone number.
So far, there are several media outlets which underwent these attacks: CNN, Russia Today (RT), Al Jazeera (English), Daily Mail, and Dr Zakir Naik’s Official Fan Page.
Table: “Online Trolling attacks from May 3rd to June 6,2016”
|Number of attacks
|Dr Zakir Naik’s Official Fan Page
|Al Jazeera (English)
|Mufti Ismail Menk
|Dr. Bilal Philips
|FRANCE 24 English
According to the analysis of operations conducted between May 3, 2016 and June 6, 2016, the overwhelming majority of attacks (40%) targeted Al Jazeera’s (English) Public Facebook page, while 20% of trolling campaigns were conducted against the Russia Today Facebook Page. CNN attracted ISIS’s sympathizers only once on May 20th, 2016, after publication of the article “What does Trump want in a VP? His top execs take a guess”. The frequency of attacks on Facebook pages is not very high, approximately, one trolling action per day. Given the fact that it is just the first experience of trolling activities in the foreseeable future, we have to expect a rise in the number of these attacks and their brazenness.
The number of comments under each targeted articles ranges from one to fifteen. Undoubtedly, to invigorate regular group members, administrators of the telegram groups participate in these attacks. However, it is hard to determine who takes a leading role in trolling attacks: administrators or group members. Some ISIS trolls make comments, whereas others limit their participation by pushing “like”. An article posted on the Zee News Portal on May 21st, 2016, received only one comment, marked by the ISIS hangtag and six likes. Needless to say, not all people who liked this pro-ISIS post belong to the telegram group. Some articles, which administrators picked for collective attacks, failed to attract members’ interest. For example, issued on May 25th, an article which depictured the security of Euro 2016 on the news channel “France 24” did not evoke enthusiasm among group members, who refrained from commenting anything whatsoever.
In general, comments express admiration towards the Islamic State and its ideology. The content of comments may vary depending on the topic of the article, however their gist remains the same. In comments, ISIS trolls try to instill the fear and helplessness of any counterterrorist effort, predicting the expansion and intensification of jihad on non-Muslim countries. Calling for Muslim consolidation all over the world, they underline the exceptional mission of ISIS, which is forced to battle crusaders alone. Western states – the UK, the US, Israel, and Russia are repeatedly presented as the main reason for issues within Muslim society. Some attackers even observe a connection between the contemporary open- door- immigration policies in the European Union and the attempt to prevent natural disasters in European states; the presence of Muslims in non-Muslim states helps to cure these infidels’ societies. Also, ISIS trolls underline the need of physical elimination of apostates, crusaders, and Jews.
To conclude, this trolling initiative has vast potential due to the malicious character of its content, easy Internet access, and the effortless nature of trolling actions, which do not demand full devotion and considerable time spending. Pro-ISIS commenting under online news articles has a collective character. While it helps consolidate ISIS’s online passive sympathizers on behalf of the Islamic State and maintains a sense of solidarity, these trolling actions help ISIS to reach and influence new audiences and extend the Islamic State’s online presence dramatically.