Social Media

ISIS Hashtag Goes Viral Thanks To Trolls Insulting The Terror Group

One hashtag is at the heart of a propaganda war playing out on social media

Social Media
A Vocativ illustration.
May 22, 2016 at 1:01 PM ET

Islamic State sympathizers are wildly celebrating the rise of an ISIS hashtag as a massive social media success and a clear win for the terror group’s propaganda. But the hashtag, #alfurqan, actually took off thanks in part to a handful of anti-ISIS trolls using it to insult the terror group, Vocativ discovered.

On Saturday morning, ISIS started promoting the hashtag—named after its al-Furqan media wing—in an effort to hype a message it was about to release. A prominent administrator on an ISIS main forum even spread the word, telling the terror group’s loyalists about a campaign to promote the hashtag.

More ISIS Ignores EgyptAir Crash, Urges Supporters To Kill Americans

Hours later, ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani released an audio statement in which he threatened the U.S. and Europe, and ISIS supporters fervently distributed the message using #alfurqan on Twitter. Every time the hashtag climbed higher and higher in rankings, ISIS sympathizers posted celebratory messages on the ISIS forum. Supporters eventually declared that it became the top-trending Arabic-language hashtag on Twitter, although that claim wasn’t independently verified. “We are first in Arabic! God is the greatest,” someone posted on the forum on Saturday.

It’s true that #alfurqan was tweeted a ton: 17,000 times from early Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon Raqqa time. But, using our technology, Vocativ discovered that the five Twitter users who posted #alfurqan the most during that period were all tweeting in opposition to ISIS—and dominating the conversation surrounding the hashtag. All five posted #alfurqan hundreds of times each, with one posting it more than 500 times during the period Vocativ analyzed.

All five users referred to ISIS as “Daesh,” a transliteration of the Arabic acronym for ISIS that the terror group loathes. They shared posts about ISIS losing in Iraq, circulated reports about the group’s fighters being killed, posted videos allegedly showing airstrikes hitting Islamic State targets, and accused ISIS of committing crimes against humanity. “The lions of the anti-terrorism force are able to eliminate Daesh in every place and every time,” someone tweeted, using the #alfurqan hashtag.

The trolls robust use of the hashtag, however, doesn’t necessarily mean they won the propaganda war. Instead, it seemed to highlight how hijacking a hashtag to attack the group can actually backfire. By propelling the hashtag, anti-ISIS trolls appeared to inadvertently give the terror group’s loyalists a boost.

One ISIS supporter declared that the hashtag’s rise showed how nothing is impossible for ISIS. Another viewed it as a success in ISIS’ efforts to draw support—and battle their enemies—using social media. “Just like bullets have an impact on the enemies, your tweets have an impact on them,” one ISIS loyalist wrote. “The war is not only in the field but also in the media,” he added.