While soldiers and militia members began the fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State in and around Mosul this week, ordinary Iraqis began their own tactical campaigns on the Internet even earlier.
The extremist group has been adept at using online communications for its own purposes, and had been transmitting propaganda even before the group’s fighters took control of Mosul. But unlike back then, this time Iraqis were prepared.
The IS group is well known for publishing old or faked pictures on Facebook to try and intimidate locals. On his Facebook page, one activist, Ridha al-Shammari warned against disseminating rumours like this. “We are going to see a major propaganda war online,” he wrote. “As Iraqis we should try and verify the content before we publish it. We need to publish photos of the heroism and the best natures of our security forces. It’s going to be, first and foremost, a propaganda battle.”
One of the most popular pages on Facebook is called Al Khuwa Al Nathifa – or “simply brotherhood”, in English – and it is run by a group of young Iraqis located in different cities around the country. It has over 150,000 followers and the young administrators write that: “Everyone in this group is against sectarian violence happening in Iraq. Their purpose is also to unite people against ignorance and radical groups who try to feed the violence in Iraq”.
Another online page – named the anti-electronic terrorism page – is a Google document that has been set up to allow Iraqi Facebook and Twitter users to report any accounts they believe belong to IS followers, or any accounts used by individuals who are spreading false information during the fighting.
“Within just a few days we had hundreds of volunteers who have said they will monitor IS accounts on Twitter and Facebook,” Thamer Abbas, one of the activists who set up the Google document together with friends, told NIQASH. “They share the information with the group and then we report the pages for violations so that administrators can close them and stop them from spreading rumours.”
Facebook is far more popular with Iraqis than Twitter but when Internet-savvy Iraqis saw that the IS group was using Twitter continuously to get their message across, they decided that they too should open Twitter accounts. The holders of Twitter accounts have previously had success publishing anti-IS messages after fighting in Tikrit and Fallujah. And last week the same Iraqi activists started to teach other Iraqis how to create their own Twitter account in an attempt to further counter IS propaganda.
Dozens of hashtags were formulated by civilian activists to support the anti-Islamic State troops. They were already well aware that the Islamic State, or IS, group itself would be engaging in psychological warfare online, once fighting started. Some of the most prominent hashtags to appear in Arabic over the past few days included the following: Mosul electronic regiment, letters to Mosul, Mosul belongs to all Iraqis, Mosul arrival, Ninawa youth battalion and we’ll meet in Mosul.
Despite Facebook’s overwhelming popularity with Iraqis, these hashtags were soon trending on Twitter and were quoted in 100,000 tweets within a day or so.
The various social media accounts are also using the work of local artists and writers, who have created cartoons, artworks, poetry and even short stories about Mosul and the fight for the city.
A few days ago the communications department that works with the country’s oft-controversial Shiite Muslim volunteer militias also announced that they would be running an online media campaign. “This campaign is a voluntary one and there are around 10,000 Iraqis on social media who will participate,” they said. “They will participate by transmitting genuine news of victories achieved by the security forces and they will also be tasked with preventing the spread of extremists’ rumours.”
The department also said that 500 Iraqi journalists would be embedded with the volunteer militias as they headed for Mosul.