When it comes to the Sunni Muslim extremist group who call themselves the Islamic State, there’s been a battle waged on social media for hearts and minds right from the start. The most recent videos, featuring beheadings of Syrian military in gruesome detail, as well as evidence of the execution of kidnapped US aid worker, Abdul Rahmen (formerly Peter) Kassig, are just the latest in a long line of information deliberately broadcast by the extremists online.
As British newspaper, The Guardian, recently reported, “[the IS group] has used modern media better than any other terror group and most production houses in the region. The vivid HD horror it routinely produces has been just as effective in securing its gains as anything its foot soldiers do – perhaps even more so.”
And many have already asked how best to counter that kind of propaganda, particularly on social media, where a legion of the group’s fans disseminates their messages. Over the past few months an unlikely new force has emerged online with their own answer to that question. And they go by some fairly odd, somewhat tasteless, almost superhero-esque names – the likes of Abu al-Kababi Fatassi, Caliph al-Rolexi, the Gay Caliph and Ms Jihadi among others. Because while some actors have found that parody videos and songs best suit their needs to make light of the IS group’s terror tactics – there are YouTube clips from Palestine and even an Iraqi Kurdish television skit as well as a fake Jihadi Vogue magazine - this particular group of anti-IS keyboard warriors exists largely on the social media network, Twitter.
The aforementioned funny names are behind a number of humorous Twitter accounts that continuously post jokes that take the mickey out of the IS group. Some of the earliest of these accounts were online in early June, shortly after the IS group entered Mosul. But over the past few months numbers have increased substantially. There are dozens now, some more prominent and active than others. There are also at least two Twitter accounts run by the US government – one is called ISIS Fake, a parody account supposedly run by the CIA and the other is the more serious Think Again Turn Away account run by the US State Department. But behind almost all of the other parody accounts are private individuals.
“In the beginning it was a way to discharge my anger by mocking their stupidity,” says one of the owners of an IS parody account who wished to be known only by his Twitter handle, ISIS Media. “Then I noticed that it can be used for a more serious, better cause. The biggest weapon of ISIS is propaganda and they can't stand effective counter-propaganda. I wanted to show how stupid ISIS is and what a stupid idea it is to join them for jihad.”
Like all of the other Twitter account holders that NIQASH contacted, ISIS Media didn't want to give his real name because of security concerns. However he was willing to reveal that he is in his late 20s, of Kurdish descent and currently in Turkey; he also told NIQASH that he was brought up in a strictly religious Sunni Muslim family but that he himself is no longer religious.
Another parody account holder who calls himself Caliph Baghdadi al-Rolexi, after the luxury watch that the IS group's leader was criticised for supposedly wearing, says he was inspired by the Egyptian political satirist, Bassem Youssef, a former surgeon turned TV host who's often described as “Egypt's Jon Stewart”.
“He advocates making fun of crazy, conservative religious guys to de-legitimize them,” al-Rolexi, an Iraqi in his 20s studying in the US, says. “Honestly, I really don’t have to look hard for satire material on ISIS. They give me a lot of material to capitalize on because they’re a huge joke.”
The account started for fun, al-Rolexi says, “but it grew more than I expected and I just continued posting”.
Most of the half dozen or so other parody account holders NIQASH spoke with had similar motivations for starting their satirical Twitter accounts. Most of the account holders NIQASH interviewed were male and in their 20s. Their locations were widespread, ranging from Europe to North America to Turkey. None were in Iraq or Syria. And while many had family connections to countries in which the IS group was active, only one had any direct experience – he had been to school with someone he knew was now fighting with the IS group. Another had had a staunchly Islamic upbringing and knew many people he described as “potential recruits”.
They all agree that since they created their accounts, they've seen many more similar jokers come online – mostly, they think, because the IS group has been in the news so much.
“I believe the beheadings of US and British citizens, as well as the fall of Mosul and the Camp Speicher massacre, have brought [the IS group] to the minds of many in the West,” says a Twitter account holder known as Ms Jihadi, or Umma Jihad al-Kanadi, who lives in Canada and is of South American descent; her Twitter tagline says she's the wife of an IS fighter and that “being feared is nothing. Being despised, even, can be lived with. But being laughed at, that's fatal”.
The parody account holders believe that their audiences are extremely wide, from Middle Eastern to Western – although they admit that the language they mostly use – English – means it must be restricted to English speakers. Additionally there's the fact that, although numbers are growing, many Arabic speakers use Facebook for their news rather than Twitter.
Popular jokes range from the downright dirty, the kind of thing that would get pre-pubescent boys giggling, to truly witty satire. The first kind might involve such things as pictures of the “Caliph” in compromising positions, everything from his favourite pole dancing outfit to his preternaturally close friendship with a goat as well as flying donkeys and camels (the IS group's airforce). An example of the second kind would be a joke about the recent Scottish referendum on independence from the UK.
“The results of the Scottish referendum were in favour of Scotland giving bayah [pledging allegiance] to the Caliph,” explains the Twitter account holder known as Abu Kabab al-Fatassi; he is also “the Caliph's teddy bear”. “But the numbers did not add up to 100 percent - this was because the Caliph has banned mathematics in schools,” al-Fatassi says.
Given the most recent events, it may seem that making fun of the IS group's activities is inappropriate. But Marwan Kraidy, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, the University of Pennsylvania, recently explained the appeal of IS satire in an interview with US radio station, NPR.
“I think people are very afraid [of the IS group],” said the academic who studies video and social media in the Arab world. “So you have the original. You have this very scary thing called [the IS group]. And … you create a funny copy of it. And between the original and the copy, you have a gap, right? And within that gap, what you do is you explore the hypocrisies - the gap between what ISIS claims to be and what it is in fact … or the way people perceive it to be.”
At the moment the nature of the content on the IS group parody accounts is changing, all of the satirists say. The older parody accounts appeared to have more in-depth knowledge of the IS group and its activities as well as more of a personal connection to current events. The more recent accounts have specialised in simpler jokes and some of them verge on being Islamophobic, they all note.
“Initially we, as a group of the older parody accounts, had a code of conduct,” al-Fatassi notes. While they're not in the same country and often don't know one another personally, some of the satirists have contacted one another directly and they will often riff on the jokes others make. But as al-Fatassi, a practising Muslim in his 20s of Iraqi descent living in Europe, says, “we kept the parody clean, no mocking religion, no attacks on any race. However at the end of the day everyone is free to post whatever he or she wants. One person might find something offensive that another doesn’t.”
The people that take the most offence are online fans of the IS group. All of the satirists regularly get reactions and that is why they all disguise their real identities and are cautious with online communications. Additionally if enough IS fan boys complain a parody account is in just as much danger of being shut down as a real IS account.
“The [jihads] just come and curse me for making fun of their Caliphate. But I like it,” says the writer behind the ISIS Media account. “I play along ... I drive them crazy. And we are regularly being reported by jihadis too - Twitter, which is supposed to take care of IS' accounts, suspends us too. My old parody account was mistaken for a real IS account by Twitter and suspended. I had gained 6,000 followers in just 2 months,” he adds.
The funniest thing about the accounts, say several of the parody-writers, is something most of the audience can't see.
“There are a large number of actual ISIS sympathisers who follow me and even retweet many of the jokes,” al-Fatassi says. “Because the first thing they do when making a Twitter account is search for “ISIS”. So they end up following me and ISIS Media not knowing we are both parody accounts.”
“I used to have at least 200 to 300 genuine ISIS followers on my old account and around 100 on my new account,” ISIS Media adds. “They retweet the tweets that actually mock them. I am serious! I do some really humiliating, but indirect, joke about ISIS and they retweet it. In my opinion, that just shows the IQ level of their supporters,” he concludes.
All of the account holders have also been trolled – jargon for online responses to a post that are motivated solely because the “troll” wants to get a reaction from the original writer.
“I get trolled a fair amount and more interestingly they have tried their own kind of counterintelligence techniques against our side,” says the Twitter account holder known as the Gay Caliph, an editor living in the US. “I have been threatened and if caught, I would expect to be killed,” he notes.
There are also other dangers to the parody accounts. Upon seeing pictures of flying donkeys and camels, one Syrian journalist has remarked that by portraying the IS group purely as idiots and uncouth barbarians who have sex with goats, the satirists might be making a little too light of the extremist group. They're obviously smarter than that, he says.
Additionally the Gay Caliph is worried that the whole thing could become an exercise in in-jokes. “If these people [the satirists] only talk to each other, and don't engage the enemy, then the concept is not working. Too much of modern life is people talking in circles to people like them, reinforcing their own opinions,” he notes.
Nonetheless all of the parody account holders NIQASH spoke with said they would continue making jokes about the IS group as long as the extremists were around.
“The [IS group] has used Twitter, Facebook and other social media to intimidate and create fear, to recruit new followers and to spread its message,” Ms Jihadi writes. “In fact their social media campaign has made them appear much more powerful than they probably are. We hope to undermine this. If our posts have made anyone see [their] ideas in a different light or made them reflect or reconsider their own position on this, then I am happy.”