May 29, 2019 —
The online media platforms of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) blend graphic audiovisual content with ideological religious writings to sanction and justify violent terrorist tactics throughout the world. ISIS has utilized Internet propaganda to its advantage, not only to bolster its expansion in Iraq and Syria, but for recruitment and dissemination of their ideology worldwide. In recent years, Jihadi groups like ISIS have relied on open Application Programming Interface (API) platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr to distribute such content. These social media platforms have been under considerable pressure to monitor and delete the accounts of a variety of bad actors from across the political spectrum; as a result, these companies have started to increasingly police their own platforms and delete accounts identified as disseminating propaganda.
However, while companies like Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to address the issue of bad-actors on their platforms, one notable holdout in terms of prioritizing secrecy and privacy is Telegram. Telegram is a cross-platform messaging service that allows users to send chats, self-destructing messages (which disappear once they are read), photos, videos, and other documents, all integrated directly within the application regardless of the size of the content. Users do not have to exit the platform, thus sustaining the individual’s engagement exclusively on Telegram, which contributes to social media addiction. The platform includes channels that are unidirectional—where central administrators (termed admins) disseminate material to which members can neither respond nor post—as well as multi-directional chats—allowing members to interact with one another, comment on content, and share new materials. While the channels provide a venue for ISIS to post their breaking news and photo reports, the chat rooms allow recruits to engage one another directly using secure messaging to plot attacks and recruit operatives.
Although Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram, has been under considerable pressure to allow governments’ access to the platform, he has defiantly refused, even after a Russian court banned Telegram in April 2018. Durov’s only explanation for his refusal to comply with government requests was posted to his personal Telegram account: “The power that local governments have over IT is based on money. At any given moment, a government can crash their stocks by threatening to block revenue streams from its markets and force these companies to do strange things. At Telegram we have the luxury of not caring about revenue streams or sales. Privacy is not for sale and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.” Thus, Telegram remains ISIS’s preferred platform for disseminating propaganda and recruiting new members precisely because Durov sees any government involvement as impinging on individual privacy.
Understanding why Telegram is used by ISIS and its supporters leads us to explore in more detail how it is used, and its impact. Until recently, the security threats of online platforms were not taken seriously and presented as mirages, haunting policymakers, with little grounding in reality. Despite this under-estimation, new technologies and the risks they pose should not be overlooked, especially as encrypted platforms have become the primary means for ISIS radicalization, recruitment, and planning. For example, Telegram was used to recruit and coordinate the November 2015 Paris attacks and 2016 Brussels bombings. While conducting research on Telegram we observed information related to terrorist plots and reported them to the appropriate authorities in the United States and abroad.
In addition to uncovering information related to plots, the daily monitoring of ISIS activities on Telegram has led our Minerva-funded research team to compare the addictive properties of terrorist online engagement to research on gambling addictions that foster emotional dependency. Social media platforms, like Telegram, are the ideal venues for generating out-group hatred. As time spent on social media reduces in-person social interactions, the potential for individual isolation and loneliness increases. As we see in various studies, the excessive use of social media increases feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, and loss of interest in life (all indicators of depression) among teenagers. Internet users can also develop an emotional attachment to online acquaintances they make in the virtual world.
Psychologist Jean Twenge alleges that users can become addicted to the dopamine “hit” of likes and are the most at risk for mental health issues (Twenge 2017, 83). Notably, young adults born in the mid-1990s and later are more likely to be attuned to social acceptance and rejection, which gets validated on platforms like Telegram. Indeed, ISIS has used social media to underscore its message of acceptance, brotherhood, and belonging. Rukmini Callimachi described how someone merely seeking information about ISIS will be bombarded with friend requests (for example, on Facebook), accrue hundreds of new followers to their Twitter account, and will have re-posted or liked virtually everything they say or post online (Callimachi 2015). Such validation may have important psychological consequences for the individual who is isolated, not unlike the process of “love bombing”—a display of affection toward new and potential converts—evident in cult recruitment.
Moreover, web forums can be considered environments that “sustain immersive communities capable of generating a powerful sense of online place” corresponding to the manner in which ISIS Telegram channels preserve a unified world-view. Research has shown that individuals who spent extended periods of time on social media manifest addictive qualities (Khang, Kim, and Kim 2013). A prevalent reason behind high-level use of social networking sites is a search for self-identity and belonging, which is a major factor in the chronic use of these platforms. The sustained presence on Telegram channels and chat rooms suggests addiction as well as a psycho-social dependence to the virtual world similar to other media platforms. However these other platforms are more heavily policed and scrutinized in ways that Telegram is not. Our research observes the recruitment of loners, outsiders, or people who do not quite “fit in” and whose lack of binding social ties and commitment render them “structurally available” across a variety of terrorist movements, from Jihadi Salafis to the extreme right wing. Many Telegram chats include the same individuals who participate across several groups and rooms. This is equally true for admins across more than one group. This enables us to identify central nodes or key players on the platform who exercise authority and control over access to the groups. As a result, using Telegram to disseminate counter narratives is of limited utility as anyone expressing dissent or attempting to offer an alternative viewpoint would quickly be removed from a chat room (and permanently from channels if that person is identified as an apostate).
Our research has generated surprising new findings regarding ISIS tactics and innovations. In real time, the platform allows an insider’s look into the new technologies being used (drones), new types of operatives (using children, eighty-year-old suicide bombers, or people with disabilities as car bombers), as well as demonstrating ISIS’ branding that allows us to distinguish between those attacks that are merely inspired versus those that are actually directed. Two notable examples of attacks that were directed include a live wearable camera feed of the attack in Bangladesh in July 2016 and the attack against the Iranian parliament in 2017; examples of attacks that were inspired but not directed by ISIS include the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, and recently, the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings.
Despite ISIS’ territorial loss, its online presence has increased and metastasized to new regions and languages and Telegram channels that had been shut down, have reemerged in recent weeks. Indeed, the prevalent use of peer-to-peer encrypted messaging by ISIS does not show signs of decline despite premature predictions that the group is in its final death throes. The continued relevance of semi-encrypted platforms is apparent; in February 2019, as the ISIS Caliphate was largely destroyed and its territorial control came under Kurdish, Iraqi, or Syria Defense Forces’ (SDF) rule, there was an upsurge in ISIS Telegram channels published simultaneously in twenty languages.
Moreover, in December 2018, because the group was aware of the degree to which Telegram had been penetrated by security personnel and academic researchers, ISIS announced that it was opening channels on other semi-encrypted platforms like RocketChat, which was originally designed for business and had both desktop and mobile applications. Nashir News Agency, the ISIS-linked media dissemination group, urged supporters to join the app in hopes that it would offer a more secure alternative to Telegram. During this same period, ISIS announced new channels on VIBER, another cross-platform messaging app. Thus demonstrating the Jihadi terrorist networks’ high degree of agility in its willingness to experiment with other emerging platforms and technologies.
But the release in April 29, 2019, of an interview with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi on one of ISIS’ news channels, the Furqan network, is evidence that Telegram continues to play a role in bolstering support and encouraging more attacks in new areas, and new regions, including sub-Saharan Africa and the Indo-Pacific region. Thus a better understanding of the role ISIS social media continues to play is crucial for appreciating what ISIS will do in the future and perhaps prevent the next attack.
Bloom, Mia, and Chelsea Daymon. 2018. Assessing the Future Threat: ISIS’ Virtual Caliphate. Orbis 62(3): 372-388.
Bloom, Mia, Hicham Tiflati, and John Horgan. 2017. Navigating ISIS’s Preferred Platform: Telegram1. Terrorism and Political Violence (July 11): 1–13.
Bloom, Mia. 2018. Since Boston Bombing, Terrorists Are Using New Social Media to Inspire Potential Attackers. The Conversation. April 15.
Callimachi, Rukmini. 2015. ISIS and the Lonely Young American. New York Times, June 27.
Khang, Hyoungkoo, Jung Kyu Kim, and Yeojin Kim. 2013. Self-traits and Motivations as Antecedents of Digital Media Flow and Addiction: The Internet, Mobile Phones, and Video Games. Computers in Human Behavior. 29(6): 2416-2424.
Twenge, Jean M. 2017. I-Gen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. New York: Atria Books.
Veilleux-Lepage, Yannick. 2019. A Typology of Islamic State’s Social Media Distribution Network. In Media and Mass Atrocity: The Rwanda Genocide and Beyond, edited by A. Thompson. Toronto: CIGI Press. 453-482.
Mia Bloom is a Professor of Communication and Middle East Studies at Georgia State University. She is the author of Small Arms: Children and Terror, Bombshell: Women and Terrorism, and Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror.
Associated Minerva Project
Documenting the Virtual Caliphate
Supporting Service Agency
Office of Naval Research
Content appearing from Minerva-funded researchers—be it the sharing of their scientific findings or the Owl in the Olive Tree blogs posts—does not constitute Department of Defense policy or endorsement by the Department of Defense.