By admin | June 19th, 2014
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has a handle on how social media campaigns work. Their YouTube propaganda videos showing their fighting capabilities, tweets containing severed heads, and pictures of mass killings on jihadi websites have accomplished their supposed goal of striking fear into the hearts of Iraqi security forces. Want to keep up to date on the organization’s activities? ISIS even has an app for that.
Their social media onslaught has prompted the Iraqi government to block access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which has predictably upset free speech activists around the world, especially since Iraqis have had open web access since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
While any government restricting citizen access to a free internet is indeed troubling, there are two other compelling reasons for Iraq to unblock the country’s access to social media and let the brutalities of ISIS come to the forefront of our global psyche: the campaign will assuredly continue to get the world’s attention while leaving evidence of war crimes, and the public opinion blowback from their violent campaign will eventually work against the campaign itself as more and more Iraqis become disgusted by the group’s actions.
On a global scale, ISIS’ campaign will unite the world against it, much as the #bringbackourgirls phenomenon brought unprecedented negative global attention to Boko Haram, an organization most Americans had never heard of prior to the social media outcry against its kidnapping of over 300 Nigerian schoolgirls two months ago.
On Monday, the United Nations said that the content of the images distributed by ISIS “almost certainly amounts to war crimes” and urged “comprehensive action.” Today, the government of Iraq asked the United States for airstrikes, and President Obama is contemplating sending special forces to the region. Iran has also sent members of the Revolutionary Guard to help defend Baghdad if need be.
If ISIS wants the world’s attention, it’s getting it –an American president that vowed to end the US’ involvement in Iraq is now heavily contemplating re-engagement. The campaign is even forcing the strangest of bedfellows to unite against a common foe. While President Obama has said any meetings with the Iranians would be “informal,” the idea of a rapprochement, even a tiny one, demonstrates how seriously regional and global powers have been affected by the wanton brutality depicted in the social media activities of ISIS.
On a local scale, the campaign, while certainly intimidating and terrifying many, will only serve to alienate the population and turn everyday Iraqis away from ISIS’ hardline Islamic worldview. Certainly, part of the reason ISIS was able to take over Mosul was because its social media campaign frightened away security forces, but this tactic will not be sustainable in the long term, nor will it amount to strategic gains. According to Frida Ghitis, world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review, “ISIS extremism provokes popular revulsion, which engenders a blowback against the group,” citing the fact that ISIS was too cold-blooded even for al Qaeda.
Most Iraqis, whether Sunni or Shia, don’t believe the Quran calls for mass graves and beheadings. The US and Iran are not likely to stand idly by and let such an organization occupy Mesopotamia. It appears that ISIS understands social media campaigns but not public relations, tactics but not strategy. This is why Iraq should unblock the internet – their vicious campaign will eventually defeat its own purpose.
Jared Troutman directs the media measurement services at Universal Information Services and specializes in the analysis of corporate and international relations.