Social media is a space where interaction and the exchange of ideas are easier than ever before. Which is great when you want to learn a new skill or increase your knowledge about any subject. But just as with any gathering or exchange of information, there are always going to be people or interests, whose intentions are not to participate in a dialogue but, to act as advocators or manipulators. Some of them could be referred with the internet lingo term of trolls, whilst political scientists would identify them as part of a coordinated hybrid warfare. Which is something that the Russian state has been accused of doing in their aggression against Ukraine that first lead to an occupation and annexation of Crimea and later unrest in eastern Ukraine, particularly the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast. Prior to the little green men entering Crimea, videos and other material were spread on social media. This material promoted a post-soviet nostalgia and the narrative of a Kiev-based fascists regime oppressing Russian speakers.
A factor that characterizes the main difference between online and offline interactions, is the anonymity that the internet lends to most online dialogues. This is something that especially ISIS has used with the aid of Tor and VPN servers.
New media, which includes social media, has, according to researcher Thomas Hedgehammer, become a must for recruitment to violent extremist groups. In order to neither over- or underestimate online recruitment, the most important fact to remember is that, ultimately, it is a tool. Which, in this context, means that in order for the recruitment message to be appealing, it needs to be part of an ideology that is appealing. The concept of a foreign fighter, on the other hand, is based -according to a definition by David Malet, built on by Hedgehammer on four criteriums:
(1) An agent who has joined, and operates within the confines of an insurgency
(2) lacks citizenship of the conflict state or kinship links to its warring factions
(3) lacks affiliation to an official military organization, and
(4) is unpaid.
It should be important to establish the conceptual difference between foreign fighters and mercenaries, as the recruitment strategies and processes destined these two typologies to bear significant differences
For mercenaries, the motive might be as simple as material compensation or other personal socio-economic gains. This was the case, for example, for most members of the Islamic Legion that operated under Muammar Gaddafi, which consisted mostly of men from the Sahel. However, whether to use the word “gain” in this context is fair or not, is another issue, since many of the recruits had few alternatives to sustain themselves and/or their families.
Foreign fighters, on the other hand, might be motivated by conviction, ideology or moral, as was the case with many who joined the Mujahideen in the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s. Other examples include internationals who have joined the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces who have taken control of three cantons in the north of the country and made advancements in order to retake the city of Raqqa. Some battalions fighting Russian-sponsored separatist rebels in Ukraine have also.
Extremism online: what is produced and distributed?
There is a lot of material online aimed at facilitating sympathies towards violent extremist groups or promoting a worldview that would correspond with the ideologies of those groups. This material creates a gateway, for individuals to join extremist violent organizations. However, for the sake of simplicity, in this article, I will only focus, briefly, on the material used and produced by ISIS.
The media production of ISIS is versatile and often cutting-edge, which indicates a great number of highly skilled individuals among their staff.
Content-wise, the propaganda caters to different audiences depending on the cultural and linguistic target groups, that is, the content directed to Chechenia will be different from that which addresses the Maghreb or Western Europe.
The motives to attract foreign fighters to ISIS have an ideological dimension, but also serve practical purposes. In addition to gaining more fighting recruits and some economic resources, some of those new recruits count with language skills used to deal with hostage situations, media production or to be assigned for suicide bombings.
On a more general level, the narratives of propaganda videos promote good governance and a fulfilling family life in the caliphate, whilst occasionally using the shock effect with pictures depicting toddlers holding up decapitated heads.
In addition to the aforementioned centrally coordinated, production and edition of material in the form of videos, leaflets, guidebooks, etc. individual members of ISIS have used social media on platforms like Twitter and instant chat applications to talk about their experiences in the caliphate, on the frontline and to communicate with other fighters. Something that would not have possible to the same extent without the smartphone.
In order to reach a broader audience and gain ground in cyberspace, ISIS has used Twitter to make their hashtags trending and viral on different media platforms. This being said, ISIS members still use older methods like burner-phones.
The ISIS recruiting networks are also hierarchical stretching from those who merely feel aligned and echo the message to those who receive direct orders from it.
But how does recruiting occur in practice? Well, as mentioned above, it is presumable that ISIS is using different tailored strategies depending on the target group. Due to its mediatic appeal, a lot has been written about women being recruited to be brides in the caliphate.
Some examples include Anna Erell, author of the book “In the skin of a jihadist: A young journalist enters ISIS recruitment”, in which she discovers how a man, claiming to command a unit of 200 fighters in Syria, lures her and a teenager from France to travel to Turkey in order to cross the border.
Something noteworthy is how quickly the process of joining the organization was set into motion. Even though Erell spent a year doing research she found a recruiter in two days, who asked her to marry later in that same week.
The conversations between Erell and the man claiming to reside in the caliphate occurred first on Facebook and then on Skype. In other words shifting to private communications from a more public chat-room like setting. The discussions would last for hours, beginning in the evening and finishing well into the night.
There have also been reports about ISIS infiltration to Islamic dating sites.
A snowball effect as suggested by contagion theory?
There are many theories that seek to identify which factors and circumstances draw foreign fighters into the realm of the recruiter. One of these explanatory theses, which is especially interesting, is the contagion theory, also discussed by Richard Landes, author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience, according to Landes:
Revolutionary ideologies only begin to appeal to large numbers (i.e., the meme only spreads widely) when people feel themselves close to the moment of transformation. … These voluntary apocalyptic communities are temporal hothouses, brief moments when a self-selecting group of strangers comes together in circumstances where all “normal existence” ceases and a series of interlocking and energizing paradoxes come to life. … The shorter the temporal horizon, the more intense the apocalyptic expectations become.
The key then is the group based emotional experience when “normal existence’’ ceases, which is something that seems to be possible to replicate through platforms on social media. You can have a whole different world from your daily life, existing within your phone and laptop and then, at some point, you have to make a choice between which one you want to belong to. By Jauhiainen Johannes