Jordan social media activists take on ISIS propaganda machine
Amman - On February 4th, Islamic State (ISIS) militants released a grisly video showing a Jordanian Air Force pilot burning to death in a cage. The aim was to terrify Jordanians and terrorise people under the militant group’s control in Iraq and Syria that they could face the same destiny if they stood against them.
It appeared that Lieutenant Muath al-Kasasbeh was killed in such a brutal way a month before the video was released. It was clearly another Machiavellian manipulation by ISIS, which during all that time was negotiating with Jordan to secure the release of an Iraqi al-Qaeda woman convicted of a November 2005 attack on three hotels in Amman, in exchange for the already-dead Kasasbeh.
And, as attention was focused on the ongoing negotiations, ISIS launched a cyber-offensive to intimidate Jordanian social media activists and bloggers who “dared” express support for the captured pilot and condemn ISIS action.
“It was the first time ever that I felt so frightened,” Deema Alam Farraj, an online activist and blogger who was voted the most influential social media presence in Jordan in 2013 and 2014, told The Arab Weekly
“They told me they knew where I lived and that they will come to kill me and my two children,” said Farraj. “It was too scary”.
She explained that ISIS threats began shortly after she began her online campaign on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms on December 24th when news came that Kasasbeh was captured by militants after his Royal Jordanian Air Force fighter jet went down during air strikes on ISIS-held sites in north-eastern Syria.
“I was spreading emotions rather than news, telling people that the war on ISIS is ours. So, they felt threatened and started coming on to me and other social media activists asking us not to interfere,” she said.
Farraj said ISIS sent her and a dozen other Jordanians “pictures of kids with their hands chopped off. If we wrote anything in any language — Arabic, English, French — they replied immediately in the same language to pull the carpet from underneath us.”
“They were strong, nasty and meant business,” she cautioned. “They hijacked my social media accounts and even created fake ones under my name with my pictures, writing slurs and insults against Jordan, the Jordanian people and threats against the king and his royal family to tarnish my image.
“They tried to silence me, to stop me in anyway, by intimidating and scaring me.”
Another blogger and social media activist, a moderate Islamist with a graduate degree in Islamic theology, said he took a stand against the “ISIS cyberwar on Jordan”.
“I was countering their religious arguments by presenting the real and true face of Islam, as written in the Quran and interpreted by top theologians and clerics,” he told The Arab Weekly.
“They told me they were coming to get me”, he said, noting that no physical harm came to him.
But, he insisted, “It was too personalised.”
The Islamist blogger said he believed that ISIS social media operators were assisted by individuals on Twitter and Facebook from Jordan. “They were giving ISIS information about us and others,” he said.
Eventually, he said, ISIS released a list of all Jordanian air force pilots who, along with Kasasbeh, were taking part in the air campaign on the militant group.
“ISIS has been putting out a huge amount of propaganda on a daily basis,” said Mina Al-Lami, a media analyst with the British Broadcast Corporation’s monitoring arm.
“The group has a very sophisticated media operation,” she said in a BBC interview in mid-May on ISIS’s social media machine, pointing out that ISIS puts out so many reports, texts, images and videos on a daily basis.
To confront security measures aimed at undermining the group’s publicity outreach, ISIS militants “stopped trying to have single accounts,” Al-Lami explained. “Instead, they went for a network of individual accounts on Twitter that would surface their material and release their material.
“This made the operation on Twitter more resilient because even as one or two accounts were closed down, the others would stay and if others were closed, all ten, 15 or 20 would pop up again.”
Al-Lami said the group was using “soft messages” to portray itself as a state, showing its members paving or cleaning roads or extending electricity lines. “It’s not all messages of violence, of beheadings, etc”, she noted. “The group tries to make sure to alternate its soft messages with the messages of violence.”
For Farraj, it was an uphill battle to close the fake accounts created under her name. “I used to block 40 or 50 accounts on social media every day,” she said, noting that ISIS meant to distract her from her online campaign.
She blamed Twitter for not acting quicker to stop the fake accounts, though she sent the network several complaints, and the Jordanian government for “failing to take the ISIS campaign seriously and underestimating the group’s tech abilities”.
“ISIS operators knew exactly what they were doing and it was a targeted and organised attack on Jordan” which stopped the “exact moment” the video was released, she said. “Since that moment, nobody has bothered us anymore.”
For Farraj, it was “definitely a cyber-attack which we won”.
“We emerged stronger and all united against the psychological terror of this group,” she said.