Well-executed social media campaigns have been at the heart of many successful companies. A strategically placed hashtag or Instagram endorsement can raise awareness, draw in consumers, and boost sales.
But what happens when these social media marketing techniques are used for harm?
With the rise of a new age of technology, more and more aspects of our lives are going digital. We have to face the reality that, now, even the ancient concept of war has taken to social media.
Notably, the terrorist group ISIS has shown a mastery of effective social media utilization. They can attribute a surge in membership, spread of ideology, and change in public perception of power to their social media campaigns; they are quickly becoming the first terrorist group to hold both physical and digital territory.
With the creation of their smartphone app, ISIS supporters are able to follow along with the group as they take over towns and announce kills with graphic imagery. Photographs and videos posted serve to send a chilling message of what happens to those who fight back. Analysis shows that the execution of American journalist James Foley was specifically filmed and choreographed for viral distribution, and it spread like wildfire on the internet.
In addition, the app is granted permission to post on social media on behalf of the user, heavily saturating the internet with ISIS propaganda from all sides. Recent data shows that, in one day, the app is able to send out about 40,000 tweets.
In a 2014 campaign, the hashtag “#AllEyesOnISIS” was used to follow the group as they launched an attack on northern Iraq. Supporters could keep up with the invasion as easily as one could with a favorite TV show and in real time. They succeeded in saturating social media so heavily that they were able to radically inflate their image of power. While their invasion of northern Iraq was met with brutal resistance and mass casualties on both sides, social media reflects a very different picture. With the onslaught of posts and stories, there was no time to tell what was true and what was not, and this chaos fueled the image that Iraq simply crumbled in the wake of ISIS power.
The psychological implications of this ability are vast. Their opposition is so heavily spammed with inflated news of ISIS victories that the group is able to instill fear and wear down their enemies mentally before a drop of blood is shed. This effect was apparent in an attack on the city of Mosul. Despite having the upper hand in every aspect of battle, the Iraqi army was flooded with news of ISIS victories flaunting inflated strength and ability. Morale was at an all time low, and the 25,000 strong Iraqi army with advanced weaponry, tanks, and helicopters fell to a band of 1,500 ISIS fighters with mostly small arms. They instill chaos by sowing fear beyond the front lines, and then capitalize on low morale.
This guerrilla marketing tactic, as well as a wide range of content, facilitate the ISIS recruiting process. They balance professionally shot executions and images of cities burning with gritty, handheld footage shot by soldiers firsthand of their daily happenings, thus humanizing their fighters. They can then easily reach sympathizers and sway those on the edge with their propaganda, helping to draw 30,000 fighters from over 100 countries.
Nearly half of the world’s adult population is not yet online, and those who aren’t tend to be more clustered in areas already very susceptible to violence and conflict. Digital exploitation of these developing nations by groups like ISIS could see disastrous consequences and a growing terrorist presence.
In today’s world, social media is the ultimate double-edged sword. Even when the violence is distant and sporadic, a constant barrage of content facilitates an ever-present undercurrent of fear, making the danger feel imminent. In response, we often see harmful overreactions, widening divisions, and the spread of anger and fear. It is in this environment of fear and chaos that terrorist groups thrive. The same technology that has the capability to unite us and minimize geographic barriers is creating harmful divisions and polarizing radical views to strengthen terror groups worldwide.
The rapid growth of technology means the world is becoming a smaller place, but is it at the cost of becoming a more dangerous one?