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Coke or Pepsi? – Real image from ISIS video

Alto Data Analytics conducted an extensive analysis using its proprietary, cloud-based technology to index and analyze millions of public digital data points across 125 countries and 53 languages in collaboration with Javier Lesaca from George Washington University. Through this research, a shift has been identified in the way that terror groups like ISIS communicate.

After 9/11, the common image of life as a jihad was formed by the low-grade videos leaked online by Al Queda. Videos were barely audible, out of focus, poorly lit and consisted of bearded men in rags, hiding out in caves and ranting about jihad. Radicalization was anything but glamorous.

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But today, with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), that is exactly how it can be described. Below is the modern face of jihad — young, smiling men who are part of a community and creating a meaningful lifestyle.

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Al Hayat ISIS Campaign “And No Respite” – November 2015
According to UN up to 35.000 Foreign Terrorist Fighters have joined ISIS in last 24 months

And unlike Al Queda, ISIS doesn’t leak their propaganda online – they strategically disseminate their messages across a complex and well-managed digital infrastructure which consists of their own news channels, newspapers, magazines, blogs and social media profiles.

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ISIS Western Style Magazines – English, French, Russian and Turkish

Violence as a Communication Tool

After conducting a comparative analysis of the visual narratives in the Islamic State’s digital network and those found in Western pop culture, we began to see a mirror image of Hollywood glamour reflected back at us. It’s a subtle strategy with a powerful effect, similar to native advertising, as the videography mimics that of popular American cinema. The footage we examined from ISIS propaganda copies scenes straight from Western box office hits like American Sniper and The Hunger Games. Visual narratives are not exclusive to film: the same point-of-view camera shot from the popular and notoriously violent video game, Grand Theft Auto, was used in an ISIS shooting rampage video and artwork from their online banners are visual replicas of Call of Duty, another video game that aggrandizes violence.

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By glamourizing violence the same way Hollywood does, The Islamic State is speaking to their target audience in their own cultural language. The dark twist is that the violence is real; the visuals ISIS uses in their recruitment campaigns are the very terror they cause. Religion is no longer the driving force behind their rhetoric, but promoting the caliphate as a lifestyle, making recruitment more inclusive than ever.

Beyond visually imitating Western culture, ISIS also carefully uses product placement of iconic American brands in their propaganda.

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ISIS uses Western cultural framing through product placement to attract audiences

This cultural framing makes it seem as though becoming a jihadist were stylish and heroic, like an actor in an action film, and is precisely how ISIS is manipulating the hearts and minds of vulnerable youth around the world.

The rate at which ISIS produces content is also a key factor in their recruitment success. ISIS employs several production and creative agencies, globally and locally, to produce high volumes of campaigns published daily. According to The United Nations, the impact of their campaigns has converted more than 35.000 foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) from 100 countries to join ISIS in Syria.

Not only is content mass produced and distributed, but the quality is polished and professional. The videography and graphics are comparable to top media companies, sports clubs and power brands like Red Bull, as production is seemingly shot in high definition with Go Pros, drones, and subaquatic cameras.

Pulse Campaigns and Metrics

A deeper analysis of data from official ISIS campaigns helped us better understand the rate at which they publish their content and what a successful digital campaign looks like. This included studying videos, articles and banner ads. Over several weeks, we were able to find several connections that demonstrated how ISIS is using similar visual frameworks from Western culture in their communications. However, we were unable to find any effective counter-narratives challenging these radicalization campaigns. Most of the popular terms associated with all ISIS campaigns were ones promoted by ISIS supporters themselves.

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No effective counter-narratives within first 5 hours
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Average campaign metrics are misleadingly modest
745 Messages, 337 Users, 111.418 Impacts, campaigns start at 16:30CET and end 21:30CET

On average, campaigns consisted of 745 messages which reached 337 engaged users and had a potential maximum impact of 111.418 impressions in addition to following a consistent pattern of running for no more than five hours. These quantitative metrics of ISIS campaigns may seem modest. However, research conducted by Alto’s analysts shows that the campaigns are indeed effective in achieving ISIS’s goals of continuously reaching specific segments with radicalizing messages. Their success factor in this case is not reach, but rather the effective segmentation of the target audience.

Propaganda in France

Throughout our analysis, there was one campaign released in May 2016 that stood out from the rest to Alto’s data scientists. The campaign was aimed at international radicalization of French citizens:

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A deeper network topology analysis of some of the most active interactions around this campaign enabled us to better understand what we believe is a core element in the Islamic State’s strategy – attracting audiences through glamourized content only to radicalize these audiences later on with personalized content.

Our hypothesis is that ISIS follows a “honey pot” strategy based on pulse campaigns. In the context of content, this means that they publish content that is culturally positioned for their target audience in order to attract and identify potential candidates for radicalization. Later, they directly contact those who have interacted with the content on a one-on-one basis via digital media. We also speculate that ISIS recruiters communicate with individuals and private groups directly with tailored content as a first step to establishing a relationship, similar to the way businesses approach lead generation with branded content.

ISIS campaigns are published across multiple global, regional and local digital platforms from discussion forums, social media networks, and video platforms to content hosting and sharing websites. In an effort to stop the spread of ISIS propaganda, digital companies regularly report that they are deactivating and deleting thousands of accounts.

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Network Topology Analysis of Interactions (detailed subnetwork)
Highly concentrated activity with late peripheral bots suspected from ISIS
Red indicates identities deleted or innactive hours after campaign finalized

Key Insights

Using Alto Analyzer and other proprietary technology, a team of data scientists at Alto Data Analytics has revealed ISIS’s ability to create effective digital media strategies for a well-defined and segmented target audience. The strategies exhibit elements such as consistent branding and an ability to connect with audiences using relevant messages and visuals on the high-value digital media channels. The key insights we have extracted from this study include:

The digital age has created new “digital battlefields”.ISIS’s visual narratives are strongly connected to those found in Western popular culture – above all in the use of violence and terror as a cultural product.ISIS’s key messages do not focus on religion, but on “joining the caliphate as a way of life”.Effective digital media strategies alongside a lack of counter-narratives indicate an area where radicalization efforts go unchallenged.Media and Internet companies are making great efforts to catch up with radicalization as a key priority.

Interested in learning more? For access to the full report or more information on Alto’s products and services, please contact media@alto-analytics.com.