Understanding The ISIS Media Apparatus: Distribution Networks And Practices
This article is republished with permission from our friends at The Middle East Media Research Institute.
For all jihadi organizations, “media jihad” is an integral part of the war. The ability to communicate a clear and simple message to the widest possible audience and maintaining a high media profile in order to convince, rule its territory, strengthen its claims and recruit more supporters and fighters is a critical strategic goal for a jihadi organization’s survival and success.
While most jihadi groups have some online and social media presence, the Islamic State (ISIS) is most notable for its extensive, high-quality outreach, in information dissemination, recruitment efforts, fundraising, and more. ISIS has innovated and pioneered in the field of media and the group’s success is attributable, at least in part, to this successful outreach. ISIS media efforts have set a new gold standard for jihadi groups, both in production quality and in distribution methods. While recent setbacks on the battlefields have affected the overall ISIS multimedia output, it remains far superior to that of any other jihadi group.
The media apparatus of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate relies on two main functions to achieve the objective of disseminating its message to the public: first, is the production of a large volume of high-quality content and second, the distribution of that content to the broadest possible audience. While the raw material for this content is being created constantly on the ground, that is, on the battlefields and in the Islamic State itself, the networks for disseminating the finished products to distant crowds are primarily electronic. For this reason, ISIS’s online dissemination has been the focus of ongoing efforts to thwart it, by governments, anti-ISIS activists, and social media companies. ISIS’s distribution strategy has been significantly impacted by these efforts, yet, it has evolved, adapted, and exploited system weaknesses in order to remain efficient.
Screenshot of the official ISIS distribution channel ‘Nashir’ in November 2015 on Telegram. All these media photos were released on a single day, indicating the quantity of output.
The following report will review the process and function of ISIS’s media distribution networks, both physical and electronic. It will highlight the ways in which the ISIS media practices have evolved and adapted in order to circumvent efforts made to remove online content and prevent content dissemination. It will not offer an exhaustive list of software and platforms used by ISIS, but rather focus on the variety of methods used by the media operatives, and attempt to offer a typology of their practices.
A Standardized, Branded Media Product
ISIS’s media production efforts have from the very beginning been notable for their slick professionalism. Additionally, they are clearly centrally directed – that is, all its provinces’ media output, though often created by different media bodies, shows uniformity and adherence to certain standards in quality and content. This is in accordance with the group’s desire to be perceived as a state, setting itself apart from other jihadi organizations. Over time, these productions’ quality – which from the outset was far superior to that of the media production of any other jihadi group – has steadily increased.
The most vital aspect of ISIS’s multimedia productions is their uniformity and recognizability; this is a major element of the way in which ISIS brands its entire organization. The products are standardized and easily marketable; any one of them immediately lets viewers know that they are looking at an ISIS product. The production format follows Western online marketing standards for online distribution: videos have a short title, an ISIS banner that includes specific elements, and, often, a hashtag that is either specific to important ISIS productions or refers more generally to other ISIS releases. It also sometimes uses hashtags that are trending in the West, to maximize visibility. Although ISIS was not the first jihadi group to use hashtags, it does so more systematically than any other group. The ISIS media products reflect the institutionalization of the ISIS media organizations: the media operation is an integral part of the organization’s policy and government, the result of a vast network of agents working for a hierarchal enterprise. The media operatives are present at each battle and other significant event, and embedded in most battalions. They enjoy better conditions than ISIS fighters, and the job of media operative is a very attractive one.
Moreover, the sheer volume of official ISIS video productions has nearly eliminated the need for pro-ISIS videos produced by ISIS supporters – a common practice among other jihadi organizations. Other organizations still rely on fan-based production and translation to spread their message, while ISIS has internalized these processes. Additionally, ISIS’s control on the ground and its operational security rules controlling released information has given it exclusivity over much of the news coming from its territories. Thus, ISIS’s official standardized productions are virtually the only source of information and content that are available to the pro-ISIS jihadi audience.
Sample ISIS banner for a media production.
The above diagram of a sample banner for an ISIS production – in this case, a photo album – shows the information that generally appears on such banners. Designed for appeal and for ease in both reading and in translating into other languages, as many ISIS productions are, the banner includes the following:
- Date of the release
- Title of the release; in this case, the addition of the number (in Arabic) indicates that it is the first in a series.
- Subhead briefly describing the content
- Content preview, often an image or photomontage of images from the production itself.
- Logo of the ISIS media office of the ISIS province releasing the production.
- The type of production – video, photo album, audio recording, etc.
Logos for the official ISIS outlet “Al-Hayat Media Center” in English, German, and French.
Finally, it is important to add that all ISIS media products, regardless of the target audience appear to be nearly identical in content. The productions are aimed at all of ISIS’s widely divergent target audiences – residents of ISIS-controlled areas, ISIS fighters, and ISIS sympathizers, as well as potential recruits in both the Arab and Muslim world and in the West. The clear and simple message expressed in them is the same for all – whether it is disseminated in the streets and at the mosques in the Islamic State, or online.
Physical Distribution Of ISIS Media
Along with its online distribution activity, ISIS maintains an in-the-field network for physically distributing audiovisual and printed material throughout the territories that it controls, including Libya and the Sinai. This activity serves the vital purposes of cultivating local support and spreading the fundamentalist vision of Islam and Islamic society – both key elements to ISIS’s state-building strategy. Flyers, magazines, and other printed materials, as well as digital content on CDs, DVDs, thumb drives, and memory cards, are distributed by hand, made available in mosques, and posted in the form of notices and billboards. Another important method of physical distribution developed by ISIS is its “media points,” both permanent and mobile, across the Islamic State. Inter alia, all these physical distribution efforts increase ISIS’s visibility and outreach among populations that have limited access to the Internet. Additionally, ISIS maintains an official radio station, Al-Bayan.
Distributing Handbills, Flyers and Notices
Notices, official administrative decisions, legal information in addition to printed ISIS media content and religious publications are regularly distributed in the streets, at checkpoints, and in mosques throughout ISIS territory.
The above document is an official ISIS notice from September 2015 for distribution by hand to local residents. This particular notice prohibits citizens from watching satellite television channels. All such official documents, which are always in Arabic, are written according to a specific formula, including a standard opening and closing statement, and bear the seal and signature of the issuing ISIS authority along with the hijri date.
ISIS media operative giving the proprietor of a Kirkuk, Iraq shoe store a flyer with the ISIS caliphate official hijra calendar.
The content distributed at the media points and in other places in the field appears to be the same as the ISIS content that can be found online. ISIS’s permanent media points are kiosks for distributing printed and digital materials to the local population. They generally have large monitors for screening ISIS videos on an ongoing basis, including for children, who are attracted by the high-quality video productions.
ISIS media point in Libya, August, 2015.
Mobile media points, usually vans, are an attraction in smaller towns and villages. The ISIS members operating them often hold events, including speeches, Koran recitations, and other presentations. These da’wah (Islamic outreach) efforts are aimed at luring large audiences, particularly children; group members will often pass out candy to the children.
Lecture at a mobile media point in Ninawa, Iraq March, 2015.
Billboards And Notices
ISIS’s billboards, posted notices, and other signs – inexpensive ways of reaching a wide audience – carry content with a different emphasis than that in ISIS media productions. This content generally focuses on communicating ISIS’s viewpoint on specific Islamic principles, such as informing residents of the ban on smoking or on the principles of proper hijab wear. Such billboards and other posted materials appear all over ISIS-controlled territory; for example, identical billboards have been observed in Libya and in Syria.
ISIS billboard in Dijla (Tigris) province, Iraq, warning about the prohibition against musical instruments, citing a Hadith stating: “Some groups from my nation will regard musical instrument as permissible.”
ISIS’s Al-Bayan radio began broadcasting in the summer of 2014, a few weeks after the capture of Mosul. It airs primarily religious content, such as prayers and recitations, along with a daily news bulletin in Arabic and several other languages such as English, French, and Russian.
This advertisement for Al-Bayan, in the ISIS weekly newspaper Al-Naba, shows the station’s broadcasting frequencies across the Islamic State, including one in Libya. At the top is information about the content aired: Koran recitations; shari’a lessons and answers to shari’a questions; daily news; prayers; religious chants and poetry; lectures; interviews; and Friday sermons.
Al-Naba news bulletin
ISIS has been producing and distributing a weekly news bulletin Al-Naba [News]. A publication by the same name was also distributed by ISIS as a yearly activity report starting in 2012. The weekly news bulletin is published as a PDF file. The bulletin is targeted at the local population, and offers news and important information to the citizens living under the caliphate rule. For instance, it recently published a notice warning the population on the transmission of the flue. Thus the magazine is widely distributed in its printed form within ISIS held territory in addition to being made available online. Below are the first two pages of the latest issue, No. 18, of the weekly news bulletin, dated February 16, 2016.
Online Distribution Of ISIS Content
Distribution as part of the ISIS media apparatus
ISIS media operatives have always been part of the distribution process, conveying content and relying on pro-ISIS networks online to distribute it to a wide audience across various online platforms. However, social media companies’ increasingly aggressive removal of jihadi accounts has pushed ISIS to use new methods – for example, robot accounts that automatically distribute content from hundreds of accounts simultaneously, thus reducing the impact of account shutdowns.
Over time, ISIS has taken charge of its entire media process, from production to distribution. However, it remains dependent on third-party software, namely mainstream social media platforms, to distribute the content to the greater audience. With the awareness that distribution is critical, ISIS has integrated into its media operation a whole group of operatives in charge of distribution and dissemination. The official ISIS distribution office Nashir, which operates mainly on channels on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, now seems to be the primary distributor of ISIS content online in a dozen languages.
List shared on Telegram of the Telegram addresses for all official ISIS Nashir distribution channels. Languages listed here include Arabic, English, French, German, Turkish, Bosnian, Indonesian, Russian, Bangladeshi, Kurdish, Turkestani, and Urdu.
ISIS Circumvention Of Efforts To Disrupt, Prevent, And Remove Its Online Content
Disrupting the distribution of, and removing, jihadi content online has become a major issue for the West, and is currently the focus of intense debate by legal scholars, media, legislatures, and more.
Removal of pro-ISIS accounts, flagging of ISIS content, and other efforts to prevent the distribution process of ISIS material has faced a systemic dilemma common to all forms of content control on social media: Since social media technology is based on user generated content, it relies on the ability of each user to share and distribute the media content they desire within their own network. So what can be done with content that users wish to share but that the platform does not wish to host? This situation has allowed for massive use of social media platforms for the distribution of illegal and undesirable content, jihadi content being one of them.
Social media platforms have mostly relied on a posteriori content validation: relying on users to flag inappropriate content and on small teams to check these flags to implement the censoring. This method relies for efficiency on the participation of the users as well as on the in-house team’s abilities to cope with the number of flaggings, which may include a high number of false flags. Also, the time between the flagging and the removal permits the fast distribution and sharing of illegal material, such as jihadi content, if only for a few hours. This is the current situation on Twitter, for instance, where most of the pro-ISIS content is distributed. This type of content validation offers the most freedom for jihadi users to operate.
Suspended Twitter account.
Facebook, on the contrary, has been a pioneer in a priori censorship, enacted through censoring algorithms that systematically check the content generated by users. This was made possible largely by the Facebook business model, which relies on thorough monitoring of user activity for the purpose of publicity, as well as on the platform policy of linking real people with Facebook accounts. However, this severely limits users’ freedom to share content, as the algorithms may wrongly detect content or miss out entirely on something which has not yet been programmed.
Although both a priori and a posteriori methods of censorship and content monitoring have failed to entirely stop the distribution of jihadi-related content on social media platforms, general public awareness combined with efforts to either stop this content from being posted altogether or to remove it once it is posted have forced ISIS, as well as other jihadi media producers and distributors, to constantly innovate and to keep finding alternative ways of distributing content.
It should be noted that the success of the efforts to disrupt and remove ISIS content vary widely for the different languages that ISIS uses across social media platforms. Content in Arabic, including hashtags, tends to come under less scrutiny, and is less disrupted, than the identical content in Western languages.
Distribution Process Typology
ISIS’s online distribution is a three-level process, with each level facing different challenges:
* ISIS media production operatives
*Upload and find a proper host for the content online
*Relay the content through official and “bot” accounts on social media (Twitter, Telegram, etc.)
*Relay the content through other permanent platforms (forums, websites, etc.)
*Individual ISIS supporters on social media sharing links and content
*Semi-official ISIS social media accounts and fan groups sharing links and content
ISIS Media Production Operatives – Web Hosting
Once a media production is ready for distribution, ISIS media production operatives find a suitable and reliable place online to host it. For text or a photo series, a webpage hosting service works well – content-sharing websites such as Justpaste.it or PdfSR.com are frequently used. Also posted on such websites are links, or collections of links, to ISIS content already posted on other websites. Alternate links to the same content are often provided, in case it is removed from one of the platforms.
For videos, the host most commonly used by ISIS since 2011, as well as by other jihadi groups, is the San Francisco-based Internet Archive (archive.org), although ISIS operatives also use YouTube, Sendvid or Dailymotion. The videos are always provided in a number of different formats and qualities, so that they can be viewed across all devices, from computers to mobile phones.
A Google image search for Justpaste.it conducted in January 2016 yields extensive ISIS content, including gore and violent images.
ISIS document in French hosted on PdfSR.com.
ISIS’s high-definition videos, which it releases daily, require broadband connections and large remote storage space – and that means that they also require free public hosting services. At this stage of the distribution process, the data flow is concentrated between the ISIS media production operatives who are locally holding onto the data and public hosting services on which they are dependent for wide distribution. The use of these services and their privacy provisions helps protect ISIS content from disruption, but at the same time these hosts have the power to delete it quickly if they wish.
The main problem for ISIS operatives is to find a host that will allow the video to remain on it long enough so that the primary and secondary distributors can distribute it, and so that it can then be copied and distributed even further, to the point where its distribution will not be affected if it is removed from a given platform. The use of bots, in this case automatic distribution accounts, allows ISIS operatives to rapidly convey the links to the primary distributors before any removal can take place.
Elements seeking to disrupt the process of distribution of ISIS videos need to act before the content moves beyond this first stage, that is, before it has been redistributed and copied.
The primary distributors of ISIS content distribute the content primarily via social media (currently, Twitter and Telegram are most often used) as well as via other, permanent platforms such jihadi forums, jihadi websites or as member-only, password-protected platforms. Most of this primary distribution is likely carried out by ISIS operatives. This distribution takes place across multiple platforms simultaneously.
In the past, primary distributors of jihadi content were for the most part supporters. Translation of the content also depended on supporters work to make the content available in other languages. ISIS has eliminated this dependency through the creation of Al-Hayat media center, a multilingual media group dedicated to non-Arabic speakers: The material is now immediately released and distributed in several languages.
Twitter accounts are used as an expendable way to distribute the content. While these accounts can be suspended within hours to days after their first use, some may remain operational for several weeks or even months. When accounts are suspended, identical ones are opened, and their new addresses are distributed via specific accounts used for “shouting” them to an existing network (see below). Following an account suspension, ISIS’s primary distributors can use third-party tools built onto the Twitter platform’s application program interface (API) to create new accounts almost immediately and to distribute their addresses to a first network so that all accounts on this network can join it and maintain the network integrity despite the shut downs.
Each initial posting of ISIS multimedia content on Twitter includes the basic information (title, date, source) along with the link to the stored data: title, type, the media office that released it, and, usually, a few relevant hashtags. Twitter is a non-language specific platform and enables content to be distributed together in several languages.
Hashtags are critical to ISIS’s successful dissemination of its material. Twitter’s hashtag feature enables ISIS distributors to circumvent account censorships by providing a fixed point in cyberspace for reconnecting with a particular network. This is in addition to the other capabilities provided by the use of hashtags, which include visibility across different networks and different platforms. For every major ISIS release, a new hashtag is created and used; all other productions are released with already existing generic ISIS hashtags relating to their content and to the ISIS media office that produced and released them.
The above image shows statistics on the use of hashtags for the distribution of one specific ISIS video release. The first hashtag to the top is the most used and is the title of that particular video. The second and third are generic hashtags #Caliphate State and #Hama province.
Anti-ISIS regularly activists attempt to disrupt the dissemination of ISIS content by hijacking these hashtags, or “trolling.” It appears that Twitter itself does not ban hashtags or systematically remove related content.
In the history of online jihadi presence, forums have been the main cyber meeting place for jihadi groups, supporters, and operatives. With the growth of social media in general, and more specifically in its use by jihadi activists, forums have held a less prominent role as a tool for disseminating jihadi information. Nonetheless, forums remain a stable means for the media operatives of jihadi groups to distribute the content to the hard core of supporters and media activists. While less accessible and mainstream, they do offer a relatively secure place for jihadi activists to exchange the information needed for general public distribution of jihadi material. It should be noted that these forums also offer other features, such as abilities to send and exchange private messages or react on the distributed material. The content distributed on these forums is not exclusively official ISIS material, but the forum Shumoukh Al-Islam has an official ISIS section.
Homepage of the pro-ISIS Shumoukh Al-islam forum featuring the banners and links to the latest ISIS media releases.
Sections of the Shumoukh Al-Islam forum are dedicated entirely to material that is not in Arabic. Before the Islamic State itself started to translate the productions into foreign languages, these forums were the designated platform for Arabic speakers to obtain the material and translate it into other languages such as French or English. Nowadays, the Shumoukh forum contains sections in French, English, and German where ISIS material in these languages is distributed.
Pro-ISIS online activists have taken over the control and administration of several jihadi forums, the main one being the Shumoukh Al-Islam forum in Arabic. A similar takeover is the one of the principal jihadi forum in French, Ansar Al-Haqq. Thus, these forums are used as bases for online distribution, with new daily posts containing all the material officially released by the Islamic State.
Forums are websites that are structured for online communities. They require an online address and a server to be run on and as such are more vulnerable to direct censorship or cyber-attacks. This vulnerability is compensated for by the legal protection offered by legislation which defends freedom of speech and Internet freedom. Many of these jihadi forums or websites were once hosted in the United States at some point, though this appears to no longer be the case.
Legislators in France have opted for allowing administrative censorship of jihadi forums and sites, thus offering a more reactive response than a fully legal procedure. However, the ban, which is locally enacted and prevents people in France from accessing the sites, is ineffective against the use of VPN, proxy connections, or the use of TOR .
Header of the Isdarat Al-dawlat Al-Islam (“Islamic State Releases”) website.
Websites / Blogs
Websites and blogs specifically designed to distribute ISIS content have recently increased around the web. These sites have the same vulnerabilities as forums: They can be easily identified, targeted, and brought down by the authorities. However, the easy setups offered by blog services enable the operatives to rapidly and effectively redeploy similar or identical platforms after they have been shut down. These sites are also the target of ongoing cyber-attacks by anti-ISIS activists. It is unknown whether some of these hacking groups receive unofficial backing or support from governments.
Currently a number of websites in various languages are operating in the distribution of ISIS material. For instance, the principal website in Arabic, Isdarat, has recently moved to a hosting on a “dot onion” TOR address. There are similar websites that have been accessible at different times in a dozen languages.
Left: An ISIS website in German. Right: Another in Urdu.
For example, the website Halummu.wordpress.com is an ISIS blog in English, hosted in the U.S., which caters to a Western English-speaking audience. It offers access to all the ISIS material and links to other distribution networks. The blog header shows nine tabs covering all the categories of ISIS material offered by the site. The website serves as an updated archive for all ISIS multimedia products.
- News: All latest news bulletins appear here.
- Major releases: The principal videos produced by ISIS are posted here.
- Top ten videos : This section contains a selection of videos.
- Dabiq magazine: All issues of the ISIS English-language magazine can be found here.
- Documents: All official ISIS documents and notifications are posted in this section.
- Nashir English: Visitors can fill in an application form here to gain access to the official distribution channel on the Telegram app.
- Al-Bayan radio: All daily news bulletins from the official ISIS radio are published here.
- Nashids: ISIS-produced songs are made available here.
- Isdarat: A page with the latest link to the Arabic depository site containing all ISIS media products.
Another example is the website Khilafah-archives.com, created in July 2015 and acting as a platform for the daily distribution of ISIS material in French, which is now back online after it was shut down for several months. It has also been updated. The website distributes official ISIS material, including the daily radio bulletins of the ISIS radio Al-Bayan and all ISIS videos with subtitles in French. It is connected to the activity of two Twitter accounts in French, Khilafah Infos and Khilafah Da’wa. The first is dedicated to ISIS news and media content, the second focuses on more religious-oriented content. Both Twitter accounts have advertised the reopening of the website, presenting it as “the website of the French ISIS branch.” The site was also advertised on the French Telegram Nasher channel, the ISIS distribution network.
Pro-ISIS website archiving Al-Hayat media productions. The banner on the top right reads “Stop Censorship.”
Telegram And Other Options
In order to circumvent potential censorship issues, and to offer continuity of service, the ISIS media apparatus diversifies the distribution platforms. Starting in 2013 and through 2014, Facebook offered a relatively censorship-free platform for the distribution of ISIS material, until the company decided to enforcer stricter policies and to ban hundreds of jihadi Facebook users. Google Plus remains an alternative for distribution, and, although less widely used, it seems to be relatively censorship-free, allowing ISIS primary distributors to reach their target audiences. In the past, ISIS has tried moving to several alternate platforms for hosting and distribution, but none of them offered as many possibilities as the mainstream social media services. It can be safely assumed that most ways of online communication, social media services, mobile phone apps, and new software that can be used for the purpose of distributing data online or communicating are or have at one time been used or tested by ISIS media operatives.
Logo and banner of the Nashir English channel on the Telegram app
The current use of the Telegram mobile phone app is a good example of the adaptability of the media apparatus and the reactivity of ISIS’s operatives. When Telegram launched its new channel service, enabling users to anonymously subscribe to a group and receive updates, links, and multimedia data, ISIS operatives immediately began using it to spread jihadi content. The nature of the service offered complete freedom for its distribution, and Telegram rapidly became the place where interested parties could find all ISIS productions from its official primary distribution sources. At one point, Telegram did begin to shut down jihadi accounts and channels, and the ISIS online community responded by telling its users to go back to Twitter and to use other secure communication platforms. However, ISIS media operatives are still currently using Telegram as a means for distribution. Some of their activity has been switched to closed channels instead of open ones, and to private accounts.
A “bot” account on Telegram for the automatic distribution of ISIS songs produced by the Ajnad Foundation. The links on the bottom are to different files.
Many other apps and software have been tried and used by the ISIS media apparatus. ISIS media operatives have also tried to develop their own Android application for distribution of news and material. They are always on the lookout for alternate platforms, and ways for communication between ISIS operatives and supporters could potentially develop on any online service providing chat, email, or messaging capabilities. The primary distributors of ISIS material seek above all to stabilize the distribution process by centralizing the data location and the go-to distribution spot. These centralized repositories are the main address for secondary distributors to obtain the material, and, as such, they are intrinsically vulnerable. However, the dynamic and diverse online regulatory environment still offers gaps that are exploited by the ISIS operatives to maintain the steady flow of data from production to the public.
Banner advertising the ISIS Aamaq news agency app.
A look at data collected from Twitter a few hours after the release of a new ISIS media production shows that 2,370 of the 3,000 accounts that distributed the link to the ISIS production had fewer than 1,000 followers. These user accounts are obviously not all held by ISIS media operatives; they are the personal accounts of ISIS supporters. They constitute the last link in the chain of the distribution process within the social media context: The target audience of the ISIS media participates in the distribution process by sharing, commenting, and re-uploading ISIS productions. Thus, teaching these secondary distributors to use available tools to participate in the media effort is of the utmost importance for the ISIS media apparatus. Many tutorials and guides have been circulated among the supporters urging them to participate and to help them be more efficient distributors. ISIS media supporters regularly share best practices and tips to further increase their reach to new audiences and to avoid censorship.
A German jihad supporter posts message and link urging and teaching others to participate in the media battle. “An obstacle in Jihad: The media of the Kuffar [unbelievers].”
After the initial buzz created by a new ISIS media release, the first wave of censorship may momentarily disrupt the process of distribution. However, other new productions replace the old ones, and those old ones become less important targets for the censor, thus leaving a space easily filled through new links and new hosting of the old productions. Webpages and websites regularly redistribute lists of old ISIS media content, and every new issue of an ISIS magazine is an opportunity for publicizing other multimedia content.
Tweets following the release of a new ISIS video
The table above shows some of the thousands of tweets sent following the release of a new ISIS video. The tweets share the links and copy the original content of the tweets; most of the tweets include hashtags. The tweets in this table were all sent within less than five minutes.
Secondary distributors are the backbone of the ISIS distribution network; they are the ones facing the most censoring efforts. Shutting down these accounts appears to be a game of Whac-A-Mole: Some of these accounts already have two or three backup accounts created for the sole purpose of reappearing and reintegrating the social network immediately after suspension. It is not rare for an ISIS secondary distributor’s account to have a number next to his name signifying how many times his account was suspended; some important distributors appear to have been suspended over 100 times. Instant email services enable the creation of dozens of social media accounts within minutes, thus rendering the suspensions useless. Also, distributors’ use of similar names makes it easy for the new account to be identified and reincorporated into the network. A common practice on Twitter is the use of so-called “shout” accounts, which are sometimes bots. As mentioned, they are aimed solely at distributing the information of accounts to be followed, together with common ISIS hashtags and phrases. Being “mentioned” by a “shout” account offers almost immediate access to countless other accounts within a given network. All ISIS secondary distributors regularly publish each other’s accounts to solidify and maintain the network despite suspensions.
Pro-ISIS Twitter users sharing each others’ handles and distributing hashtags. The “72” in the account named FollowTheHAq_72, indicates the number of times the account has been shut down.
While a few of these distributors may have been identified and prosecuted, as was ShamiWitness, most appear to be continuing to fairly easily, and massively, distribute ISIS content. Twitter remains the main vehicle for these secondary distributors, although Facebook and Google Plus are also used to a lesser extent. The thousands of ISIS supporter accounts and pages on all social media platforms that have emerged the past few years are aimed at a wide variety of audiences in the West and worldwide.
The “Sensitive Information” channel is a French-language pro-ISIS media group. They have a presence on multiple platforms, including Google Plus (left), Facebook (top right), Twitter (bottom right), and Telegram.
The ISIS media apparatus is highly adaptable and constantly evolving. The distribution of ISIS’s media productions is a crucial aspect of the media system, enabling ISIS to reach out to vast audiences and spread its message worldwide. ISIS has produced vast amounts of multimedia material, and distributes it by all possible means – by hand, via posters and billboards, via television and radio, and, most of all, online.
This distribution is facilitated by the nature and consistency of the message, as well as the standardization of the media products. The process of distributing ISIS material appears to be ingrained in the creation of the content itself, making the products easily “marketable.” ISIS’s branding of its media products helps create an environment in which they are easily distributed, searchable, and located, with no need for supporters and the rest of the target audience to possess skills in obtaining illegal content online. It is also created to be easy to understand and to appeal to all types of audiences, in many languages.
Thus far, attempts to censor ISIS materials online have failed to significantly diminish the efficiency of the ISIS distribution network. ISIS content remains as accessible as ever to any Internet user. The content remains hosted and shared in centralized locations, for example Archive.org, allowing anyone to search for and access it at any time.
The ISIS media apparatus makes use of all the features offered by popular social media platforms to share and distribute their content. It uses all available methods to expand the organization’s audience and to achieve the greatest possible media exposure, through the use of hashtags, smartphone apps, and more. It is able to exploit its online environment by taking advantage of loopholes in the law, in platforms’ terms of service, or in service provider practices. When faced with difficulties, it is able to rapidly adapt and switch to other methods to remain active online.
ISIS’s centralized and standardized media production relies greatly on its ability to have a sustainable host for the massive quantities of content that it releases and distributes on a daily basis. It is also dependent, to some extent, on mainstream social media platforms to have a high impact on a wide audience. Thus, these very characteristics that constitute the strength of the ISIS distribution system – a very recognizable product distributed through the “enemies'” platforms – could also rapidly become its weakness if ISIS’s enemies use them for countermessaging and psychological warfare.
Fake ISIS video distributed using the exact same methods as the real ISIS media. Real ISIS supporters shared this video unknowingly.
*S. Benjamin is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 See MEMRI JTTM report HASHTAG #Jihad: Charting Jihadi-Terrorist Organizations’ Use Of Twitter, June 21, 2012
 See MEMRI JTTM report The Islamic State (ISIS) Establishes ‘Media Points’ In Syria, Iraq, Libya To Indoctrinate Caliphate Citizens And Enhance Its Cyber Activities On The Ground: A One-Year Review, Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1190, October 1, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Islamic State (IS) Promotes Its Materials Via ‘Media Points’ Scattered Across Al-Raqqa, Syria, July 24, 2014.
 See MEMRI JTTM report ISIS Decorates Streets With Anti-Musical Instruments Ads, June 23, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Al-Qaeda, Jihadis Infest the San Francisco, California-Based ‘Internet Archive’ Library, Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 724, August 17, 2011.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Who Is Posting Islamic State (ISIS) Materials On The San Francisco-Based Internet Archive (Archive.org) – And What Can Be Done About It?, June 1, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report New ISIS Media Company Addresses English, German And French-Speaking Westerners, June 23, 2014.
 See MEMRI JTTM report ISIS Hashtag Campaign Hijacked By Twitter Trolls: A Case Study, August 26, 2015.
 See MEMRI report From Al-Qaeda To The Islamic State (ISIS), Jihadi Groups Engage in Cyber Jihad: Beginning With 1980s Promotion Of Use Of ‘Electronic Technologies’ Up To Today’s Embrace Of Social Media To Attract A New Jihadi Generation, November 19, 2014.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Main French-Language Jihadi Forum Supports Islamic State, Bans Dissenting Opinions, August 15, 2014.
 The French jihadi forum Ansar Al-Haqq is currently shut down; however, it appears the shutdown may have been caused by a group of independent hackers. See MEMRI JTTM report Main French Jihadi Forum Taken Down, January 12, 2015.
 Foreignpolicy.com, “Anonymous vs. the Islamic state”, November 13, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTT report Following Repeated Shutdowns, Prominent Website Disseminating ISIS Materials Resurfaces With New Doman Name – Isdarat.pw, October 15, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Jihadis Announce New ISIS Website On The ‘Dark Web’, November 16, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report ISIS Social Media Distribute List Of Favorite Videos From District Media Branches, May 6, 2015
 Source : Khilafah-archives.link, November 08, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report ISIS Media Operations: Khilafah Archives – Website Distributing Material In French, July 29, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Cyber Warfare: ISIS Activist Efforts To Circumvent Censorship Through Alternative Social Media Thwarted By Anti-ISIS Hacker Retaliation, April 3, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Encryption Technology Embraced By ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Other Jihadis Reaches New Level With Increased Dependence On Apps, Software – Kik, Surespot, Telegram, Wickr, Detekt, TOR: Part IV – February-June 2015, Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1168, June 15, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Jihadis Shift To Using Secure Communication App Telegram’s Channels Service, Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1198, October 29, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report On Telegram, ISIS Supporters Are Instructed To Return To Twitter, December 9, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Jihadi Recommends Using Secure Messaging App ‘Signal’ Instead Of Telegram, December 15, 2015.
 See the following MEMRI JTTM reports New Pro-Islamic State Of Iraq And Syria (ISIS) ‘News’ App For Android, Available At Google Play Store, Special Dispatch Series No. 5721, April 24, 2014; Jihadis Announce New ISIS App For Android, August 3, 2015
 See MEMRI JTTM report ISIS Supporters Post Video Tutorial On Using Twitter To Disseminate Jihadi Material, October 26, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM French ‘Gatekeepers’ Disseminate Islamic State (ISIS) Information On Social Media, December 31, 2014.
 Indianexpress.com, Pro-IS Twitter handle: Mehdi Masroor Biswas booked under UAPA, June 2, 2015.
 See MEMRI JTTM report Islamic State (ISIS) Social Media Pages Targeting Western Audiences, December 22, 2014
 See MEMRI JTTM report ISIS Hashtag Campaign Hijacked By Twitter Trolls: A Case Study, August 26, 2015.
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