When the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) descended on the Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014, they didn’t just march into town—they simultaneously launched a Twitter hashtag campaign, #AllEyesonISIS. It was blitzkrieg with a digital marketing strategy.
Within hours, images of ISIS barbarity spread throughout the Arab world, sowing fear among Mosul’s residents and defenders. The social-media campaign gave an air of inevitability to the looming seizure of the city, and the atrocities that would follow. Despite the fact that they outnumbered the attacking ISIS force by 15-to-1, the Iraqi army units defending Mosul disintegrated and fled. A militia of no more than 2,000 ISIS fighters captured a city of 1.5 million.
From its start, social media has been integral to ISIS’s rise. It enables ISIS militants to raise its prestige among terror groups, and overtake older jihadist competitors like al-Qaeda. It serves to coordinate troops and win battles. And it allows the group to administer the territory under its control.
Now ISIS is using social media to expand its war far beyond its borders. What started with the choreographed execution video of James Foley, blasted across the Web through an army of dummy Twitter accounts, has now morphed into something more devious and distributed.
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