After the Islamic State: Social Media and Armed Groups
On Aug. 16, 2011, the armed uprising against Col. Moammar Gadhafi raged across Libya. One of the authors sat on a frontline just west of Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, with Mokhliss, a fighter from the Shalgham battalion (named after the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations who publicly disavowed Gadhafi). Mokhliss recounted the group’s early successes against government forces in the narrow alleys downtown. As I listened, he caught my look of skepticism, as the events he described seemed increasingly implausible. He smirked and took out his phone, scrolling through the group’s Facebook page until he found the video of that day’s operation, recorded and uploaded by one of the group’s members. I watched the events unfold on the screen just as he had described.
The Islamic State is often credited with pioneering the use of social media in conflict, having created a global brand that drew between 20,000 and 40,000 volunteers from at least 85 countries. Social media served as a key recruiting tool, source of fundraising, and platform for disseminating graphic propaganda to a global audience. But the Islamic State perfected tactics and strategies already widely used by hundreds of other armed groups. For example, al-Shabab pioneered social media use by self-described jihadist groups, using Twitter and micro-blogging platforms before the Islamic State. But its regional focus in the Horn of Africa meant that its efforts did not show up on the West’s radar until the Westgate Mall attack in 2013. Unlike the Islamic State — which pursued recruits from around the world — al-Shabab appealed to regional and local audiences. As a result, it was largely ignored by the West and social media companies.
According to our research with the Digital Traces of Conflict Project, there are over 1,456 armed groups operating in civil wars in Mali, Libya, and Syria. Almost all use social media to target regional and local audiences, but vary in their choice of platform. Social media is also providing novel and underexplored funding channels. Studying how terrorist groups “successfully” use social media will help predict characteristics that will define the future of conflict. The next global threat to exploit social media will emerge from the groups currently avoiding detection or attention by platforms. In response, the United States and its partners should build new models, grounded in the full range of armed group social media usage, if they hope to anticipate the future of malicious online activity by armed groups.
Social Media’s Influence on Conflict
In the past decade, social media has transformed conflict, forever changing how civil wars are fought, funded, and studied. Insurgent groups have announced their formation, boasted of their victories, recruited new members, and solicited funds on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. At the same time, the unprecedented attention paid to the social media efforts by groups like the Islamic State has created what we think is a false impression of how armed groups use social media. Specifically, there is the idea that successful use of social media by an armed group results in a global brand and international attention. Rather, most armed groups successfully use social media at local and regional levels, escaping the purview of the West and social media platforms.
Social media use varies significantly between armed groups within the same conflict, and also varies among different conflicts. Further, the social media platform most used by armed groups also varies between conflicts, reflecting pre-conflict conditions and differences in platform policies.
In 2011, Libyan armed groups and activists integrated social media into their insurgency at scale. Gadhafi often deployed state-controlled media to falsely proclaim decisive victories or control over contested cities. In response, hundreds of Libyan insurgent groups and activists turned to social media to upload videos and photographs of their operations and protests to disprove Gadhafi’s claims. The groups relied heavily on Facebook, likely a direct reflection of Libyans’ prevalent use of the platform before the war. A majority of Libya’s armed groups created Facebook pages (72 percent, see Table 1 below). Crucially, barely 1 percent of groups have had their Facebook pages removed (or chosen to take them down). For many, Facebook was an integral part of their operations, with almost half getting at least 1,000 likes on their respective page(s). But for a small fraction, social media became central to the group’s efforts. For instance, the al-Ahr Sharia battalion broadcast daily operations live on Facebook, collecting more than 200,000 likes on its Facebook page and over 20,000 Twitter followers. However, other groups — some even larger than al-Ahr Sharia — chose not to develop Facebook pages or otherwise build a social media presence.
What explains the different social media strategies adopted by groups in the same conflict? Are there, for example, types of armed groups best suited to use social media effectively? And, equally important, are there decipherable patterns in how social media platforms are used among different conflicts?
The use of social media during the conflict in Libya demonstrated the importance of social media to insurgents’ efforts. Most groups used it to communicate with local supporters, and a small fraction (14.9 percent) made social media central to their military operations. This analysis is based on a random sample of 121 armed groups in Libya using Facebook (of a total 695 armed groups): 87 groups (72 percent) had an official Facebook page, while 34 (28 percent) had none. Despite the high number of groups with a Facebook page, only a small fraction were responsible for most social media activity. Facebook page likes indicate the amount of users who are subscribed to (and likely engaging with) the content on the page. We interpret Facebook likes as an indicator of how much support and interest an armed group has successfully amassed.
Despite the increasing ubiquity of internet access in conflict settings globally, many armed groups opt to use social media sparingly or to avoid it entirely, reflecting differences in strategic needs and goals. In Libya, the top 10 percent of groups with a social media presence accounted for 70 percent of the social media engagement on Facebook. The top 20 percent accounted for a stunning 85 percent (see Table 2). Why do the remaining 80 percent of groups account for so little? Internet access in Libya is readily available in the larger cities, so access is not a likely explanation. In our discussions with Libyan commanders, some explicitly instructed their members not to post pictures and videos on Facebook as a way to reduce government surveillance during the 2011 uprising. These groups received almost all of their support from local communities so they had little need to publicize their efforts to a larger audience. Group members would instead share videos and pictures directly with their community through local Bluetooth networks. For some armed groups, the risks generated by documenting their activities online, including undesired surveillance by the state, outweigh the benefits of social media use.
Table 1: Facebook ‘Likes’ Associated with Armed Groups’ Facebook Pages
|Facebook Page Engagement||Number of Groups||Percentage|
|Groups with 10,000–100,000 page likes||13||14.9|
|Groups with 1,000–10,000 page likes||31||35.6|
|Groups with 100–1,000 page likes||6||6.9|
|Groups with 0–100 page likes||36||41.4|
Source: Tables generated by authors at the Digital Traces of Conflict Project. Almost half of all armed groups used Facebook, but only a small fraction made it central to their efforts.
Table 2: Tiers of User Engagement with Armed Groups’ Facebook Pages
|Tiers of Engagement for Armed Groups (Facebook Likes)||Number of Groups||Percentage of Armed Group Likes (TOTAL)|
|Top 10 percent||9||70.0|
|Top 20 percent||18||84.7|
|Bottom 80 percent||68||15.3|
Source: Tables generated by authors at the Digital Traces of Conflict Project. A small percentage of armed groups accounted for the majority of social media usage in the Libyan conflict.
The Islamic State Is an Exception
The international community’s discussion of armed actors’ co-opting of social media to recruit and radicalize is dominated by Islamic State’s efforts, and that of directly affiliated jihadist groups. As a result, analysts and governments are failing to capture the full range and anticipate the potential consequences of armed group social media use. For example, the search term “Islamic State social media” generates almost 1.5 million results in academic publications. By contrast, “Al Qaeda social media” generates only 84,000. Even fewer are generated when searching for the Free Libyan Army, the umbrella term for the insurgents who toppled Gadhafi. We argue that because of this scholarly attention, Islamic State’s use of social media has come to be seen as representative of all armed groups, when in fact it is the exception. If Islamic State is an exception, how are the majority of remaining insurgent groups using social media, and why are they not replicating the (apparent) success of the Islamic State?
The only other comprehensive study on social media use by armed groups looked at the Twitter activity of 155 groups selected from Uppsala Conflict Data Program’s dataset, which largely captures prolifically documented armed groups. Similar to our argument, the data found only 6 percent of groups were high-propensity social media users, with more than 10,000 tweets in total (by comparison, former President Donald Trump tweeted 25,000 times during his four years in office).
Of the 1,456 armed groups we track in Mali (38), Libya (695), and Syria (723), none have experienced the same success as Islamic State in building an international audience or brand through social media. So far, we don’t have a single answer to explain why the Islamic State stands out in this area. It is likely a result of a combination of group-level dynamics (e.g., organizational capacity, ideology, intended audience, English fluency, etc.) and conflict-level factors (e.g., internet penetration rates, pre-conflict social media behaviors, etc.). However, building an international audience and brand should not be the only marker of successful social media strategies by an armed group. There are many different applications that can successfully serve insurgents’ goals and strategic needs, including soliciting funding, improving communication, and building support at a regional, national, or local level.
Implications for the Future of Civil Wars and Areas for Future Research
The prominence of the Islamic State’s social media strategy obscured how most armed groups use social media. Some use the full array of social media platforms to interact with communities, donors, and international media. Other groups, by contrast, explicitly avoid social media or engage online at a localized scale. A better understanding of how organizational and technological limitations impact the use of social media by non-state armed groups can help analysts and governments understand how social media will shape the future of political violence. Here are three implications going forward:
“Successful” Social Media Strategies Vary
What constitutes a successful social media strategy varies by armed group and conflict. It appears that most groups use social media effectively at the local level, focusing on a more limited, domestic audience, or communicating directly with funders and supporters in ways that intentionally avoid international or state attention. The Islamic State’s strategy of developing a global online presence in some ways serves as a cautionary tale for armed groups given the consequences of Western government attention. While it raised its profile and facilitated recruitment efforts, this type of international attention is not always desirable depending on the capacity and aims of an armed group.
Armed Group Financing
Social media has facilitated new funding streams for armed groups, allowing them to connect and communicate directly with a broader range of funders as well as benefit from crowdfunding services. Nevertheless, the full extent of this change is not well documented. In the Syrian civil war, many armed groups uploaded YouTube videos thanking their funders and asking for more support. As documented by the Washington Post in 2013, one brigade named itself after its benefactor, a Kuwaiti sheik, and uploaded videos to YouTube, thanking him and showcasing a banner with his name. Initial evidence suggests that in Syria social media has changed funding strategies and streams, as well as the overall profitability, compared to historical funding models.
The Platform Matters
There is little research on how armed groups use social media across different social media platforms. For example, do they use each platform for specific purposes or is content presented in similar ways? From our preliminary research in Libya, Syria, and Mali, insurgents relied heavily on Facebook. But Syrian armed groups were three times more likely also to use a Twitter account than groups in Libya. In Mali, armed groups used twice as many YouTube channels to get out videos as groups in Libya or Syria. Interestingly, however, they posted about as much content (proportionally) as the Syrian groups. Understanding what drives platform preferences for armed groups would allow us to better anticipate the types of malicious behaviors and trends that can emerge.
The West’s fixation on the Islamic State and its use of social media (followed more recently by a shift to far-right extremists) ignores how the vast majority of armed groups across the world use social media. Most armed groups use social media away from global attention, avoiding action by the U.S. companies or Western governments. The next Islamic State will not use the same online playbook. Anticipating future threats in the online environment requires monitoring armed groups’ emerging social media strategies adapted to avoiding detection while targeting niche audiences.
Laura Courchesne is a Rhodes scholar and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford. Her research examines how states and armed groups use social media in conflict settings and the economics of disinformation campaigns. She is the co-founder of the Digital Traces of Conflict Project and a research fellow at the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project at Princeton University.
Brian McQuinn, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Regina and co-founder of the Digital Traces of Conflict Project. He has two decades of experience as a researcher and humanitarian worker in more than a dozen conflicts. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford after completing seven months of ethnographic fieldwork with insurgents in the 2011 uprising in Libya. Brian co-edited The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath (Oxford University Press) and is completing a book (2022) on how rebels initially organize, focused on the Libyan uprising. Thank you to Adam Halawani for providing research support.
Image: African Union Mission in Somalia (Photo by Tobin Jones)