Its territorial gains over the past year have astounded the world, but some of the most surprising successes for ISIS have come in cyberspace, where the group's social media presence is booming. Using Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, as well as various Internet memes, ISIS releases videos and images, often featuring violent scenes of beheadings and torture against Iraqis and Syrians. Supporters and various twisted Internet users are quick to upload and disseminate this content all around the world.
Al Qaeda spin-off ISIS has come to control one-third of Syria and a quarter of Iraq, unleashing havoc and horror in its path. It has attracted thousands of youth from around the world, who have been indoctrinated in its extreme ideology, which even the notorious Al Qaeda has found “brutal.”
But what is driving the sudden online expansion of ISIS? Governments hope that cracking down on its spread in social media will help limit the group's reach ideologically and logistically.
Recently, Russian Duma deputies asked the Attorney General to label extremist all videos by and about ISIS, which would obligate federal censors to ban the publication and sharing of such content. Last week, officials responded by asking Russia's media oversight agency, Roskomnadzor, to ban access to almost 400 different hyperlinks on Vkontakte and YouTube leading Internet users to the ISIS propaganda film, “Clanging of the Swords.” Earlier today, October 27, the Attorney General appealed to Roskomnadzor again, ordering it to ban seven different pages on Vkontakte for carrying ISIS calls to extremist and terrorist acts.
Roman Khudyakov, the parliament deputy heading the initiative, says free access to sites with ISIS content presents a threat to the Russian state and society, popularizing Islamic fundamentalist ideas. Khudyakov, citing the presence of Russian subtitles on some of ISIS’s videos, says the materials are aimed at recruiting new members from Russia.
The move to forbid ISIS’s media content joins a broad trend of growing Internet surveillance and censorship in Russia, but the feasibility of weakening ISIS's recruitment efforts by targeting social media is questionable. Last June, the the security consultancy Soufan Group published a study about the online recruitment efforts of Syrian combatants, finding that new members are often “interconnected within self-selected bubbles.” In other words, the ISIS videos and memes circulating online might be a mere consequence of preexisting social networks in the offline world, rather than the result of some brilliant social media marketing campaign.
As Global Voices has written in the past, charges of terrorism and extremism are some of the ways police around the world limit free expression and justify the incarceration of social media users. In Russia, there is a long history of persecuting Muslims, including the use of torture to extract confessions from those suspected of having ties to terrorism.
While Russia's crackdown on ISIS online content might succeed in weakening the group's reach, it will also make ordinary citizens—particularly those who share religious materials online—more vulnerable to new criminal prosecutions, which threaten more arbitrary detentions and mistreatment of prisoners taken into custody.