In the U.S., the reputation of the Islamic State spread mainly through social media. When graphic images of journalist James Foley’s beheading circulated on Twitter in 2014, it signaled to the world that ISIS was a new brand of terrorism—not just one that was exceptionally brutal, but one with exceptional social media savvy.
But during an event last month that surfaced this week from the annals of the State Department website, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel debunked the idea that ISIS is a terrorist network made up of evil social media geniuses.
"Kim Kardashian is retweeted more in three days than ISIL has done on social media since they were created," Stengel said, speaking in his official capacity at an event in the U.K.
The terrorist organizations' social media presence has been a cause for concern in the West because it has targeted—at times successfully—young Western Muslims to come and join its fight. Last year, the National Counterterrorism Center estimated that 3,400 Westerners have traveled to join ISIS. Last Friday, Twitter announced that, since mid-2015, it has deleted more than 125,000 terrorist accounts from its network.
But Stengel stressed that for ISIS, social media is just the "tip of the iceberg." He said that only 6 or 7 percent of ISIS' content is even in English—the vast majority is in Arabic, followed by Russian and then English and French.
"Because we see the few things they do on social media in English, we think everything they do is on social media," he said. "Can I tell you something? In Iraq and Syria, they’re on billboards, they have kiosks, they do flyers, they have imams preaching sermons."
Stengel also noted that their social media content is overwhelmingly positive, made up not of violent or negative content but altruistic calls to action and images like ISIS fighters passing out fruits and vegetables to young boys and girls. This makes their messaging harder to combat.
But Stengel highlighted the real problem of terrorism in the social media age. ISIS doesn't have to employ Silicon Valley social media geniuses to effectively use Twitter to circulate fear in its wake and entice a few new recruits. ISIS doesn't have to win Twitter to win the war.
"They’re not winning," Stengel said. "The problem in this information war is you can win 99.9 percent of the audience [but] those tiny percentage–.1 of 1 percent, like .001 of 1 percent of the Muslim population of the world—is still a couple of million people, and you could lose the whole thing. So that is the problem there. But they’re not winning in any kind of mass way."