The social media use of the world’s most wanted terrorists is something of a paradox.
It reflects the contradictions within jihadi fighters themselves.
Foreign nationals from affluent countries such as Britain or Belgium are drawn by the promises of battle and ultraconservatism made by Islamic State (IS), but remain tied to the westernization of their home countries and the inherent attitudes of a globalized youth.
They are at once both murderers and children, militants and tweeters, bombers and idiots.
Unfortunately, their online presence is often all too effective.
IS uses the internet to broadcast propaganda, feeding religious fuel to the unseen masses of foreign sympathizers it needs to sustain its numbers.
The State Department has estimated that 12,000 individuals have travelled to Syria to fight for groups like IS, and the numbers continue to grow every day.
Social media is leveraged to appeal to the ideal IS recruit.
To paraphrase Daily Beast editor Christopher Dickey, these recruits consist overwhelmingly of young males who feel oppressed and are susceptible to the jihadis’ theatrical promises that the recruits will be able to project their frustrations on a world stage.
Tweeted selfies of severed enemy heads alongside battlefield luxuries like energy drinks solidify the appeal.
Dickey refers to the combination as TNT–testosterone, narrative and theater.
For women, the propaganda is more subversive.
IS targets the daughters of ultraconservative Muslim families, who are prohibited by their parents from exiting the house, making friends or living whole lives, and thus escape through the only venue they can—the internet.
Terrorist recruiters promise a life of empowerment in Syria contrasted with an eternity of captivity at home, and then mail money and plane tickets.
Stories abound of young women who simply disappeared in the morning, only to be found married to an IS jihadi many months later.
However, perhaps more comfortingly, online activities from the front lines can backfire.
A Taliban leader had to go undercover pretty quickly after learning he had failed to deactivate the auto geolocation feature on Twitter, broadcasting his location in Pakistan with every tweet.
After discovering his lapse, he quickly blamed the broadcasts as an “enemy plot,” though users were quick to wonder how and why his enemies would have access to his Twitter account.
Other releases include the “doxxing” (the release of names and addresses associated with an online account) of many IS propagandists by Anonymous, revealing members of the group operating out of India and the Americas.
And other online users have been merciless in their portrayal of the inept behaviors of untrained and overexcited terrorists abroad.
Anger at the horrifying killings of journalists and a Jordanian pilot prompted the release of many “blooper reels”, filled with IS members blowing themselves up through improper use of explosives and ranged weaponry.
Powerless to intervene but enraged at the brutality of the executions, many online users have found the depictions—featuring prematurely detonating suicide vests during photo shoots, back-firing mortars, and terrorists shooting each other in the back—to be a cathartic form of dark humor.
It’s not a situation in which anyone can win.
But when it comes to combating the insidious propaganda and disinformation of terror groups, using positive elements of social media such as humor and aggressive fact-checking may turn out to be both a valuable tool and a psychological refuge against their brutality.
Copeland is a member of the class of 2015.