By Jonathan Davies

Tools of war. We all know them; soldiers, guns, grenades, tanks, planes, drones, helicopters, rocket launchers. I myself observed some of the more grand tools of war yesterday (Wednesday) in the form of the warships docked in Cardiff ahead of the NATO Summit in Newport.

With the increasing threat posed by Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), western leaders have described it as one of the smartest and most advanced terror group it has ever faced.

When I and many others heard and read those statements, it's more than likely than we pictured high-tech weaponry. How many of us thought of social media? Very few is my guess.

Although western leaders may not have been referring to social media when they said ISIS is the most advanced threat we've ever faced, but it is a key part of their strategy.

What is ISIS doing on social media?

Propaganda has long been a part of war. But this is perhaps the first real and large use of social media. And ISIS is using it in a big way.

Since it's offensive began in early June, a number of Twitter accounts have popped up claiming to represent ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

You're probably well aware of the advice out there for businesses using social media - post regularly and post content which will be interesting and engaging to your audience.

That's exactly what ISIS is doing. In the early days of its offensive, the various Twitter accounts were giving live updates and images of its advances in Syria and northern Iraq.

As the offensive advanced, so did ISIS' use of social media. It began to post images of captured Iraqi security personnel; something that went viral as the western world looked on in shock and ISIS' Twitter supporters shared it.

An online data mining company said a large proportion of pro-ISIS tweets are coming from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other nations in the Gulf region.

ISIS supporters found themselves able to follow its almost every move. Operations, including the number of bombings, suicide missions and assassinations it has carried out, and of checkpoints and towns it controls were all shared on the accounts which were rapidly growing in numbers.

Islamic State is even encouraging its supporters to create their own content, much in the same way some businesses might ask their customers to do.

Using its chosen hashtags, ISIS called on its supporters to post messages and videos of them waving the ISIS flag, branching their strategy out to other platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram as part of its "one billion campaign".

ISIS supporters even jumped on the #WorldCup2014 to flood football fans with propaganda.

After US President Barrack Obama authorised air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, ISIS launched a new hashtag; #AMessageFromISIStoUS. It was used to directly threaten the US with retribution and vengeance for the strikes.

But the western world really stood up and took note when ISIS took its social media strategy to a whole new level. It posted the video of the murder and beheading of American journalist James Foley. It was a video that shocked people to their very cores. But it adhered to the principles advised by social media experts everywhere. ISIS shared potentially the most engaging content possible for its supporters. The same happened again recently with a second horrific video; this time the murder and beheading of Steven Sutloff.

Can ISIS' social media be stopped?

In the wake of James Foley's murder, Twitter declared it would try to stamp out ISIS' presence. But Twitter faces a fight of unparalleled proportions. For every account it takes down, more pop up all over.

Research by social media analysis firm Recorded Future on behalf of Sky News found that more than 60,000 pro-ISIS Twitter accounts have been started since May.

Of those, 27,000 were started following the murder of James Foley.

In the 24 hours after the video of Steven Sutloff being murdered was published, Recorded Future found that 10% of all Twitter activity about it were positive.

But the problem that Twitter faces is the persistence of ISIS supporters. As soon as it removes an account, another one is opened bearing a similar name and posting similar content. The other supporters in the network will tell other to follow this account, explaining the previous one was closed.

This graph shows the twitter activity of a user called Abu Bakar, who has opened four different accounts because Twitter has closed the others. "Follow this account it is Abu Bakar", this tweet shows.

It's not just Twitter that is playing a very difficult game of catch up, either. As I mentioned earlier, ISIS soon branched out to the likes of Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. But it is now targeting smaller social networks. This graph shows the sources that pro-ISIS Twitter accounts are linking to.

A huge issue in Twitter's fight against pro-ISIS accounts is the very process it uses to take down accounts. Twitter does not actively and automatically monitor accounts. So the only way it can take action is if users report the ISIS accounts.

Staffan Truvé, the chief technology officer of Recorded Future, said: "Clearly, the current manual process where Twitter shuts down accounts that are reported cannot keep up with this tactic.

"We believe automated approaches that use techniques similar to those we have presented here sentiment and network link analysis can be used to successfully block improper content that violates the Twitter rules."

Twitter refused to comment on the research, but a spokesperson said: "Twitter users around the world send approximately 500 million Tweets each day, and we do not monitor them proactively. Our rules prohibit unlawful use and violent threats, and we will take action when users report it to use."

What is clear is that ISIS is most definitely a threat the western world has never faced before. It is utilising social media to spread its message across the world; to promote its cause and to indoctrinate and recruit new members.

The world and its wars have seen propaganda tactics used many times before. But never before has it seen social media used in such a way. Whilst it has the more traditional weaponry needed for its fight, ISIS has made social media a tool of war.

Are you concerned by how easily ISIS is using social media? You can email your reactions to editor@freshbusinessthinking.com

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