MOSUL, Iraq—Revolution hangs heavy in the air as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria spreads its influence throughout the land. Key to its success has been a masterful command of social media and advertising on which the U.S. publishing industry hopes to base its own resurgence.
ISIS has “learned how to quickly capture the public’s attention and get them to buy into the belief that the page needs to be turned in Iraq,” according to Walter Finebaum, editor at HaperCollins.
News Corp, the publisher’s parent organization, is reportedly in talks to acquire the ISIS imprint in an effort to renew Rupert Murdoch’s flagging print media holdings.
Financed by an estimated $400 million taken from Mosul’s central bank and a “subscription service” that taxes Christians wishing to avoid crucifixion, ISIS has substantial resources at its disposal to spread the word. The group’s cellphone app, called Dawn of Glad Tidings, included embedded advertising and a spam generator that helped deliver Tweets to new audiences, including those following the #worldcup.
Added Finebaum, “Through a clever mix of native advertising, product placement, and—let’s be frank—a gun to the head of those not willing to enroll in the jihadist-manifesto-of-the-month club, ISIS has carved out an audience completely occupied with the unfolding narrative. It’s an impressive operation.”
The group’s sometimes-irreverent style represents a good case in point. After claiming to have seized a number of American-made helicopters, ISIS jokingly took to Twitter to say, “We’ll expect the Americans to honor the warranty and service them for us.”
“Not only are they effective jihadists but they have a sense of humor,” according to Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics. “Their wit helps balance out some of their brutality, which would otherwise be off-putting in the marketplace.”
Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, credits the expansion of ISIS largely to its willingness to conduct extensive market research. He cites an English-language propaganda video that appeared on Twitter this past Friday, promoting the international appeal of ISIS.
“They study us. They study us closely,” claims Fishman. “They know that when there is a release in English we not only talk about it more, we reflect on what it means.”
Fishman does not subscribe to all of ISIS’ tactics—such as the beheadings and mass killings—but he is awed by the ability of “a relatively small band of brutal insurgents to get thousands of retweets effortlessly,” while he struggles to “get anyone from outside of [his] friends and family to show up for [his] book tour events.”
Fishman’s newest book, a history of jihadist movements, is scheduled to be stripped and pulped due to lack of sales.
“Let’s face it,” says Fishman, “Barring an act of God, print will be dead in less than a decade. Soon tree-killing will be the exclusive domain of the Bible and the Quran, which continue to have book sales to die for.”