The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The subtle message behind a Japanese meme mocking the Islamic State

A video released this week plunged Japan, normally on the fringes of Middle Eastern matters, deep into the nightmarish world of the Islamic State. In the video, a now-familiar masked man warned that two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto Jogo and Haruna Yukawa, would be executed unless the extremist Islamist group received a $200 million ransom within days.

In the past, Japan has sometimes responded to kidnappings in the Middle East by blaming the victims for getting themselves in the mess. But this time, another tact has been taken – Japanese social media users have started a meme designed to mock the Islamic State.

Tens of thousands of tweets have been sent with the hashtag #ISISクソコラグランプリ over the past few days. Many of these tweets include photographs from the Islamic State's hostage videos, digitally altered in comical ways.

The video games Web site Kotaku says that #ISISクソコラグランプリ roughly translates as "ISIS Crap Photoshop Grand Prix," and similar hashtags have been used to pool other badly altered images before. The new hashtag has been remarkably popular, with almost 70,000 tweets including it in the past few days, according to social analytics firm Topsy. Many of the images shared with it appear to reference Japanese gaming culture. 

With two men facing a gruesome death, the hashtag may seem silly, perhaps even reckless. But there are also a couple of subtle, perhaps unintentional, messages behind it. For one thing, as the Japan Times notes, the users are responding to the Islamic State's use of bizarre Japanese hashtags (including “Zuwaigani," which means queen crab) to spread the hostage video on Twitter. By mocking the extremists on the medium, they are taking back control.

There's also, however, a more significant message. By digitally altering screenshots from the video, Japanese Twitter users end up drawing attention to the theory that the Islamic State digitally altered the video themselves. Veryan Khan, director of Beacham Publishing's TRAC (Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium), told Reuters on Wednesday that "inconsistent shadows" and unusual wind movements suggested that the video had been heavily manipulated, and was likely filmed indoors in front of a green screen. Similar claims have been made about previous videos from the group.

It's an important point: The image the Islamic State sends out to the world doesn't always correspond with reality.