Iraq and ISIS: Waging war with hashtags

In the war of selfies and hashtags, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria might have won an early victory, but that doesn’t mean the battle with social media is lost. Overwhelmed by ISIS tweets and other online propaganda, pro-Iraq social media accounts have fired back with a hashtag of their own: #No2ISIS.

While ISIS’s brutality — and its inclination to display it on every social media platform available — has been well covered, the Iraqi counter-campaign has garnered relatively little attention in Western outlets.

But the #No2ISIS hashtag has already surged on Instagram and seems to be doing so on Twitter as well. Anti-ISIS protesters in London began using the hashtag earlier today on posters, while the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, has even appeared in photos holding placards with the hashtag.

The idea is simple: For many Iraqis, the quickest way to counter the ISIS propaganda machine is to make one themselves.

ISIS has used online propaganda to devastating effect, but rather than using a single unified hashtag to deliver its message, the group has instead hijacked other hashtags, including those used by World Cup fans. By using hashtags like #Brazil2014 and #WC2014, ISIS has flooded feeds on Twitter and other social media with recruiting images specifically curtailed to the West. Its well-produced videos, images and well-tuned Photoshop skills have allowed it to seem relatable, and at times even comical, to the West.

Last week, ISIS tweeted a picture of first lady Michelle Obama holding a sign that initially showed the hashtag #bringbackourgirls – a reference to the more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls – but that was Photoshopped to say #bringbackourhumvee, an obvious dig at the American-supplied Humvees recently captured by ISIS in northern Iraq.

ISIS’s propaganda videos are also a spectacle. Gone are the grainy images of yesteryear where masked men jumped over oddly placed obstacles and played on monkey bars for no reason. ISIS appears to have adopted the use of small high-definition video cameras, of the likes adorned on soldiers’ helmets in Afghanistan, as well as professional production values to elevate propaganda video to 21st-century standards. The beginning of their newest video, “Clanging of the Swords IV,” even features scenes shot from a small drone mounted with an HD camera, giving  viewers a bird’s eye view of Anbar province under ISIS reign.

The propaganda has allowed ISIS members to portray themselves as a larger and more capable fighting force than they actually are. A recent article in the Guardian asserted that ISIS propaganda helped intimidate the Iraqi army in Mosul, where it was ultimately routed. Yet, for all ISIS’s propaganda successes, Iraqis appear to have been quick to catch on.

“Fear not, #ISIS social media thugs pose no threat,” a #No2ISIS tweet reads. “Cowardice behind a screen will not harm you.”

 

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a summer intern and a former U.S. infantry Marine.
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