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Filtered extremism: how ISIS supporters use Instagram

Filtered extremism: how ISIS supporters use Instagram

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Last week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called ISIS the "most effective recruiter in the world," and pushed tech companies to help curtail the group's ability to woo recruits through online videos and social media. While studies like one last week by researchers from George Washington University show that Twitter is still ISIS's most significant online recruitment tool, the group also uses more intimate platforms, like Instagram.

Compared to Twitter, ISIS's presence on Instagram is more informal. Users often post pro-ISIS images and memes, as opposed to the screenshots and video clips disseminated by the group's official channels. For users in Syria, Instagram allows them to project a semblance of normal life under ISIS: home-cooked meals and views out their window, for instance, with hashtags and symbols declaring support for the group.

Instagram allows them to project a semblance of normal life under ISIS

Overall, these accounts normalize radical ideas, says Sarah Gilkes, a research associate at GWU's Program on Extremism who worked on the study. Of the 71 Americans charged with crimes relating to ISIS, the study found that almost all spent time in ISIS's insular online communities. After seeing hundreds of memes with Islamic State ideology superimposed, the ideas suddenly don’t seem so extreme. Plus, many radicalized people often come from troubled backgrounds or unstable family situations. These platforms can give them a sense of community.

We worked with Gilkes to examine ISIS supporters' Instagram accounts. Many accounts denounce Western intervention in Syria and allude to more extremist views, but only certain ones use the specific hashtags and imagery that indicate ISIS support. We include some examples below, along with Gilkes' explanation of what we're seeing. All photos were publicly available. It's important to keep in mind that while an account might clearly communicate support for the group, it doesn't mean an individual will resort to violence. The vast majority of pro-ISIS people will never commit a crime, Gilkes says. That often only occurs after a variety of triggers, depending on the person.

This account appears to be run by a young woman in England, going off her geotags and several selfies. In this image, Gilkes explains, the user includes the hashtag #taqwa, which means piety. Her image and caption tap into themes of nationality versus unity under a religion. A primary ISIS narrative is unity of the "true Muslim community" and loyalty to that community versus to the State, Gilkes says. "Color doesn't make a difference, it's all about the concept of unity," she says, which this post directly states. Also of note is the use of an emoji pointing toward the sky. Gilkes says this is often used among radical supporters.

The flag, also a clear indicator of support, translates to "There is no God but God" on the top portion. In the circle, it states "Allah, Messenger, Muhammad," which relates to the second part of the Testimony of Faith, or the Shahada. This is a common jihadi theme.

The ISIS flag also comes up in the below profile picture.

The woman's account description says she doesn't like "coconuts," which, in ISIS's online world, is derogatory slang for people the group deems to be not true believers. This includes both Sunnis and Shiites who speak out against the group or deny their Muslim identity. The woman also uses the word "ukhtis," which means sisters, so she's encouraging other interested women to message her privately.

Just like any other online community, its participants have created their own style and imagery to demonstrate membership. The group frequently references green birds and will often combine a green heart or green circle emoji with a bird emoji to convey the green bird imagery. The green bird is said to be the state martyrs reach when they get to heaven.

Lion imagery is commonly used, as well, because the animal represents bravery in Islam.

Users also commonly note when their accounts are new and reference previous usernames. Gilkes and her fellow researchers noted in their paper that, as much as these accounts can be taken down, they almost always come back. These takedowns are often bragged about and posted as a "badge of honor," Gilkes says.

We can see lion imagery in the background of an ISIS flag in one user's post.

Instagram also allows for easy sharing of ISIS mantras in digestible images. The below is an example.

This image is a bit bizarre, Gilkes notes, because the Arabic on the sign doesn't have its letters connecting — they stand alone — and some are backwards. Looking past that, though, the picture is fairly self-explanatory. This user is saying there's no way to "idly sit by and still be sincere in your desire to become a martyr," Gilkes says. A person has to act upon that desire to truly make good on that belief.

This user posted the below later in the week:

Although this image by itself isn't necessarily radical, his use of the word "Khilafa," or caliphate, indicates at least an interest in the group. When combined with his prior post, one can conclude he supports ISIS's radical ideology.

This image plays to Instagram's strengths. People can easily curate an image of their lives and idealize it for followers. Below are two photos, one of which the researchers used in their paper, that represent dispatches from Syria.

"You hear a lot about the violent content that ISIS puts out, but you don't hear a lot about the images of shopping in Mosul or Ramadan festivals and celebrations," Gilkes says. "ISIS curated this image of themselves as brutal and violent, but they also have this aspect where the State comes in." While sifting through accounts, there were occasional photos of what appear to be dead fighters, but there are also pictures of everyday life, which has been one of the platform's pulls.

In this photo, used by the researchers in their paper, a commenter chimes in with anti-ISIS rhetoric. Many people attempt to engage with supporters on Twitter, too. (Even hacktivist collective Anonymous tried to take down the group's accounts.) However, on Twitter particularly, Gilkes says this calling out of ISIS members doesn't accomplish much. More often than not, the dissenting user will end up on one of ISIS's curated block lists, and the group's online community will continue to interact with only its own world view.

While Clinton and other politicians have pointed to technology companies as the solution, it's still unclear how social media platform operators could discourage such accounts, especially when their content doesn't breach current terms of service. Most images are benign and show support through slang like "coconuts" or emoji.

For its part, an Instagram spokesperson said in a comment to The Verge that there is no place for terrorists on its platform.

"We work aggressively to ensure that we do not have terrorists or terror groups using the site, and we also remove any content that praises or supports terrorism," the spokesperson said. "We have also developed simple, powerful reporting tools that allow the community to flag content to our reviewers. The global review team responds to reports from the community around the clock and we prioritize safety-related reports for immediate review."

The solution to ISIS's social media campaigns might be actual people rather than reporting tools

Suspensions get rid of one voice temporarily, Gilkes says, but she compares it to Whac-A-Mole. She says the solution to ISIS's social media campaigns might be actual people rather than reporting tools.

"I think really the power is in people with credible voices, whether on the community level, in the religious sphere, or in the government," she says. "These credible voices [need to be] coming in and turning the ISIS propaganda on its head, and sort of reveal what life under ISIS rule looks like."

That being said, different messages resonate with different people, so finding one that works will likely prove to be the most difficult struggle.