Ever since its establishment, ISIS has been well aware of the importance of the battle for hearts and minds to attract operatives to join its ranks and promote its goals, and has been investing extensive resources doing that. In its heyday, ISIS made massive use of all possible platforms on the web: social media, video file-sharing websites, blogs, internet forums, and various websites. In addition, it has produced materials such as videos, including Hollywood-style productions which have received international exposure. ISIS’s messages, disseminated in numerous languages, targeted various audiences around the world. ISIS’s propaganda messages disseminated worldwide have significantly contributed to its widespread expansion, the encouragement of operatives to join its ranks, and making the international community aware of the organization’s existence and activity.
Following this trend, the Digital Media Monitoring Center (Marsad al-I’lam al-Raqmi) in Iraq, an NGO monitoring the activity of radical organizations, mainly ISIS, on social media, recently detected a sharp increase in the number of ISIS-affiliated accounts on TikTok, a video-sharing app popular mainly among children and teenagers around the world. According to an announcement published by the center, its personnel recently identified hundreds of new accounts of ISIS-affiliated entities on this social network. Many videos were posted on these accounts with ISIS content, inciting killing and hatred. They included photos of ISIS leaders with words of praise, as well as videos documenting attacks carried out by ISIS operatives. Some of the accounts clearly displayed ISIS flags (website of the Digital Media Monitoring Center, February 20, 2021).
According to the Digital Media Monitoring Center, they have detected hundreds of new accounts of entities affiliated with ISIS. The center noted that those in charge of the TikTok platform were not doing enough to prevent that and block the accounts. According to them, the TikTok management fails to remove those contents immediately either by technological means or manually, and it takes a long time until they delete the accounts. The center called on TikTok management to be more vigorous in removing those contents and preventing their dissemination among children and teenagers (website of the Digital Media Monitoring Center, February 20, 2021).
Initial information about ISIS’s activity on TikTok was recorded back in October 2019 as part of a study conducted by social-media intelligence company Storyful headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, and an investigative report published on the Wall Street Journal. The study found many videos posted on TikTok, showing armed operatives, women saying sentences such as “jihadist and proud,” “We pledge allegiance till death,” and more. Videos also featured corpses paraded through streets, ISIS militants with guns, and even karaoke songs inviting the viewers to sing along (Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2019).
All those contents were edited so as to appeal to children and teenagers, using elements such as flowers, hearts, rhythm and music, as is customary in the app. In this context, Elizabeth Kendall, a University of Oxford expert on radical organizations, noted that these methods of conveying propaganda messages for the dissemination of ISIS’s ideology contribute to rapid distribution, and contents conveyed in this manner are assimilated by the target audience faster than sermons or theological discussions (Middle East Monitor, October 24, 2019).
In response to ISIS’s propaganda messages posted on the app, and after various elements approached the TikTok management, on October 21, 2019, it permanently deleted 24 accounts responsible for radical propaganda (CNBC, October 21, 2019). Seizing this occasion, the TikTok management pointed out that it is not a platform for promoting terrorist organizations and that it would permanently ban all accounts working for that purpose (BBC, October 22, 2019).
TikTok is a Chinese app which enables users to record short videos 3 seconds to one-minute long. Available in 75 languages, the app is number one in popularity among the social media, with over a billion users worldwide. Its main target audience is relatively young: about 40% of the platform users are 16-24 years old.
Logo of the TikTok social network (from the TikTok app)