The Fight against ISIS on social media: The War for Hearts and Minds

Adam Hoffman investigates efforts to combat ISIS using social media.

In parallel to the military fight against ISIS – led by the Global Coalition, with the participation of local forces in Iraq and in additional parts of the Middle East – recent months have also seen an online campaign that seeks to debunk the organization’s narrative. The online struggle against ISIS is hardly new. As early as November 2015, following a series of ISIS attacks in Paris, various groups of hackers, led by Anonymous, began working to remove ISIS activists and supporters from social networking sites (SNS).[1] In addition, Twitter and other technology companies invested efforts to remove accounts and messages associated with ISIS from their networks.[2] The main innovation of the current struggle, which is managed by governments and civil society organizations, is the effort to discredit the messages distributed by the organization on SNS, and to refute the religious and political credibility of its messages, in order to de-legitimatize the organization's narrative.

Since the summer of 2014, ISIS has maintained a conspicuous presence on SNS. One metric used to measure online activity is the number of messages sent. In February 2015, ISIS supporters sent more than 90,000 messages on Twitter and on other SNS every day,[3] in addition to the frequent distribution of propaganda videos to thousands of users by the use of a single hashtag,[4] and the production of high-quality magazines and Islamic songs (anashid) that have together spread the organization’s extremist ideology to a global audience. In response to Twitter’s efforts to eradicate ISIS’s presence on its network, the amount of ISIS activity on that platform dropped dramatically. As a result, supporters migrated to other networks, particularly to the secure messaging app Telegram.[5]

Therefore, the challenge of fighting ISIS on SNS remains; it represents a central component of the international effort against ISIS and that organization's online efforts to recruit supporters and funding. Senior officials in the US State Department have claimed that counter-messaging campaigns are an important strategic pillar for defeating the organization.[6] From the perspective of the global coalition, the purpose of these campaigns is to refute ISIS' narrative, and thus to undermine the ability of its radical ideology to continue to mobilize supporters.[7] In part, this goal derives from defining the fight the US and its partners in the Global Coalition are waging against ISIS as a “narrative fight,” in the words of White House Press Secretary Josh Ernst. According to him, while the US is mounting a limited attack against a small group of criminals and terrorists who commit atrocities, ISIS presents a narrative in which it is the exclusive representative of Islam and wages war against the 'infidel' West.[8] Ernst's statement is consistent with the strategic approach of US President Barack Obama, who opposes defining ISIS' terrorism as “Islamic,”[9] and instead presents ISIS as an extremist group that has distorted Islam in order to justify acts of terrorism.[10]

During the last year, several official accounts have been opened on Twitter and elsewhere, as part of the effort to fight the narrative disseminated by ISIS. Included among these are a Twitter account maintained by the Global Coalition[11] and another operated by the British Government, under the name UK Against Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS). These accounts provide ongoing updates about the military campaign against ISIS and the damage inflicted to its forces. Their purpose is to contradict the reports that ISIS distributes about its own successes in the field and its governmental activities within the territory of the “Islamic State.” For example, one tweet in UK Against Daesh contended that more than 25,000 ISIS fighters had been killed since the beginning of the Global Coalition's attacks on the group in September 2014.[12] The Coalition also uses these accounts to circulate the stories of people who have deserted the organization and of Muslim civilians who have suffered under the iron fist of ISIS’s reign of terror, using the hashtag “WhyTheyLeftDaesh.”[13] The purpose of these stories is to expose the fraud presented in ISIS' propaganda, which claims that the organization is acting in accordance with pure Islam and provides for the needs of the populations under its control.

Another type of message promoted on these accounts aims to undermine the religious and political legitimacy of the organization’s activities. One of the most prominent campaigns of this type is the “Sawab Center,” which publishes messages under the headline “United Against Extremism.” This account, established in July 2015, targets a Middle Eastern, Muslim population with tweets in Arabic and English.[14] Sawab is the result of a joint initiative by the governments of the United States and the United Arab Emirates, and has 159,000 followers as of this writing - an impressive number on social networking sites, especially considering its official, governmental nature.[15] Its content includes verses from the Qu'ran and messages calling for peace and interreligious tolerance. Thus, Islam is presented as a noble religion in opposition to the atrocities committed by ISIS. Other messages relate to the steps that all users can take against ISIS on SNS, including tweeting positive messages in response to ISIS propaganda, encouraging users to report ISIS messages as inappropriate, so that they will be removed from the specific platform, and not re-sharing messages posted by the organization.[16] The goal is to encourage ordinary Muslim users to present a rational, authentic voice against ISIS, one that is not funded by Western corporations or government agencies.

Another prominent effort is the “Truth about ISIS” campaign, which is not identified with any government or official organization. Instead, it is operated by a British ex-jihadist who wants to prevent Westerners from joining the organization. The true identity of its initiator is kept secret for fear that he will be attacked by ISIS supporters in Great Britain.[17] The campaign has accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, in addition to a website with many new videos and articles emphasizing the failures of ISIS on the battlefield and the atrocities it commits.[18] It works to expose the true reality hidden behind the organization’s propaganda, and to refute the messages that present ISIS as victorious using the same tools ISIS itself uses. For example, after the death of ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the “Truth about ISIS” Twitter account published a video presenting the organization not only as defeated on the battlefield, but also as losing control and disintegrating from within.[19]

The range of initiatives being undertaken in the fight against ISIS on SNS is further evidence of the power of SNS as a central arena for shaping public opinion in the 21st century. This fact is recognized at once by violent non-state actors, such as ISIS, as well as governments and civil society organizations. These initiatives, which are directed at different target audiences, aim to achieve three goals: to reduce the number of Westerners recruited by ISIS and thereby hurt its ability to replenish its ranks, to reduce support for ISIS in the Sunni Muslim world, and to encourage ISIS fighters to desert the organization. The fact that the forces fighting ISIS on social media use the same tools and the organization's own messages provide an impression of trustworthiness and authenticity to these messages, and provides a look ‎inside what is happening among ISIS forces and within the territories under its control. These are critical aspects of the online war for "hearts and minds" that ISIS had previously waged unchallenged.


[1] Katie Rogers, “Anonymous Hackers Fight ISIS but Reactions Are Mixed,” The New York Times, November 25, 2015 ; Angelo Young, “How Anonymous Fights ISIS: It’s More About Research Than Hacking,” International Business Times, November 28, 2015.

[2] “Combating Violent Extremism,” Twitter, February 5, 2016.; “Social media companies step up fight against ISIS propaganda,” Daily Mail, December 6, 2015 ; Amar Toor, “Automated systems fight ISIS propaganda, but at what cost?” The Verge, September 6, 2016; Amar Toor, “Facebook, Google, and Twitter combat online extremism with targeted videos,” The Verge, August 4, 2016. 

[3] Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Intensifies Effort to Blunt ISIS’ Message,” The New York Times, February 16, 2015. 

[4] Gilad Shiloach, “The Islamic State’s Media Blitz against its Enemies: Issues & Character,” Beehive 4, no.1 (January 2016).

[5] Mary-Ann Russon andJason Murdock, “Welcome to the bizarre and frightening world of Islamic State channels on Telegram,” International Business Times, May 23, 2016; “ISIS Supporters Move Conversation Offline, Create Chatrooms on Encrypted App 'Telegram',” MEMRI Jihad & Terrorism Threat Monitor, August 25, 2015. 

[6] Mark Mazzetti and Michael R. Gordon, “ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War, U.S. Concludes,” The New York Times, June 12, 2015. 

[7] “Countering Daesh's Propaganda,” Global Coalition, 2016. 

[8] Pamela Engel, “White House press secretary: We're in a 'narrative fight' with ISIS,” Business Insider, September 19, 2016.

[9] Transcript: President Obama's Speech on Combating ISIS and Terrorism,” CNN Politics, September 11, 2014. 

[10] Ryan Teague Beckwith, “Read President Obama’s Speech Criticizing the Muslim Ban,” TIME, June 14, 2016.

[15] “Launch of the Sawab Center,” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Spokesperson, Washington, DC, July 8, 2015. ; “UAE & US Launch Sawab Center – New Digital Communications Hub to Counter Extremist Propaganda,” Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, Washington DC.

[17] Oliver Wright, “TruthaboutIsis: Mystery site fighting ISIS run by British ex-jihadi too scared to go public,” Independent, August 26, 2015.