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The Islamic State has a new weapon for spreading hate speech and violent content online: emojis.
Over the past two months, Facebook pages in Arabic, Kurdish and English have used these digital images to circumvent Facebook’s content rules. Emojis have been used instead of words like “weapon”, “explosion” and “rocket” in defense of Islamic State terror attacks across the Middle East and beyond.
These pages, posing as mainstream media organizations with mundane names like World News and Media Point, have collectively racked up hundreds of thousands of likes, shares and comments, based on research shared with POLITICO.
Fake media is part of a sophisticated digital disinformation campaign that includes the deployment of different tactics on Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and Telegram channels. In total, Islamic State-affiliated channels have nearly 80,000 subscribers. Some of the social media content has been available since June 2020, mainly focusing on spreading hate speech in Iraq and Syria by sharing information about ISIS attacks from the group’s official spokespersons.
Much of the ISIS content reviewed by POLITICO is still online – and none of it should be available on social media, based on the platforms’ own rules against terrorist content.
“They are linked to a larger unofficial information ecosystem about ISIS that has uncovered specific escape tactics, even despite [social media] rollouts, to thrive and continue to do so,” said Moustafa Ayad, executive director for Africa, Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks the online extremism. Ayad discovered the terrorist groups on all three platforms. and shared his findings with POLITICO.
“ISIS supporters have found a way to use multiple platforms in increasingly sophisticated ways,” he added. “Why would they develop an emoji code to describe certain things on Facebook and not use that same emoji code on Telegram? It’s about using different tactics.”
Different tactics for different platforms
The groups are weaponizing blind spots in each social media platform‘s content policies to promote hateful and violent ideology, according to two national security officials and three researchers who track jihadist material online.
For Facebook, this includes replacing terrorist language with emojis. For Twitter, this means toning down content in English versus what is posted in Arabic. For Telegram, that means copying directly from official ISIS material. It’s an ever-evolving cat-and-mouse battle with tech companies and national security agencies.
Combining different platforms also allows jihadist groups to reach the widest possible audience while presenting themselves as part of a legitimate political organization. Alternative networks like Telegram provide a place to coordinate tactics, while a more traditional platform like Facebook is used to spread propaganda that is often toned down so that these messages can circumvent the platform’s content moderation tools.
“They’re very sophisticated. They’re very aware of what they’re doing,” said Ayse Deniz Lokmanoglu, postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Center for Communication and Public Policy.
In response, Facebook declined to comment but said it was investigating the accounts. Representatives for Twitter and Telegram did not respond to requests for comment.
Tech companies, even when they have been slow to remove material from Western extremists, have aggressively deleted tens of thousands of accounts with close ties to ISIS, the Taliban or other jihadist groups, working often working closely with national security agencies to dispose of this material. .
It hasn’t always been a success. Internal Facebook documents, released by Frances Haugen, a company whistleblower, revealed how the company has repeatedly failed to protect its Arabic-speaking users from terrorism-related content. In response, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it had invested heavily in Middle East-based content moderation.
Yet extremists have moved quickly to stay ahead, taking advantage of little cooperation between tech companies to crack down on campaigns that rely on multiple social networks.
Meili Criezis, a graduate of American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab who tracks ISIS’s online propaganda, said these groups often use relief social media accounts in case their main channels are taken down.
“They still have a backup channel that you could link to each other,” added Criezis, who was not associated with the work provided to POLITICO by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, but who independently discovered part of the same ISIS-related digital disinformation campaign.
“For the Islamic State, it’s important because they see themselves as a global caliphate. That’s why these media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook and Telegram, are important to continue,” she said. .
Syrian prison break
In late January, Islamic State militants carried out a violent prison break in Hasakah, Syria, and showed off their digital disinformation device in action.
On Telegram, fake media began sharing a specific ISIS hashtag that the terror group was using to coordinate its messaging around the attack, which led to 10 days of fighting in the Syrian city. They have also reused photos and other social media content directly from the official jihadist propaganda machine, often keeping the ISIS logo on social media posts shared in Telegram.
On Twitter, Arabic-language accounts openly supported the prison break, both sharing the ISIS hashtag and praising the “caliphate state”. Yet in English, where the social media company’s online content tools are more advanced, these accounts were more discreet, simply referring to activists as “Muslims coming together”.
On Facebook, the pages relied on their emoji codebook to advertise the attack, merging the digital images to describe terms associated with ISIS. They also posted a lengthy video of the prison break, which garnered nearly 90,000 views, taken from the militants’ perspective as they dispersed across the Syrian town.
The accounts, channel and pages of the three social networks repeatedly shared the content of others, as well as that of affiliated social media users who disseminated the material to a large audience online.
“What’s happening here is something completely new,” said Ayad, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue researcher who discovered the network. “It’s a cross-platform, multilingual tactic that uses fake news organizations and different content strategies. The goal seems to be to maintain an online presence without being detected.”
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