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ISIS Twitter Users Have Learned from Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Now What?

Taylor Swift arrives at the 58th annual Grammy Awards

Taylor Swift arrives at the 58th annual Grammy Awards // Jordan Strauss/AP File Photo

It's well-known that ISIS members use Twitter and other social media platforms to connect with potential recruits. But how can Twitter users make sure they don't fall victim to their propaganda?

Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who recently co-authored "War Goes Viral" for The Atlantic, thinks the best way to avoid manipulation is to "know that someone's trying to manipulate you," he said at a New America event in Washington on Wednesday.

"Is our current political system and media one that incentivizes resilience or rewards hysteria?" Singer said during the discussion. "A gatekeeper who is an editor on a cable TV show, or a gatekeeper in terms of a media company ... in terms of a politician, are they incentivized to ramp up the fear factor, ramp up the uncertainty? ... I worry about that right now."

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When examining ISIS Twitter accounts, "you can see parallels of what are simply best practices online,” he said. For instance, the group launched an offensive in Mosul using Twitter hashtags, Singer said, which is something a company launching a video game or promoting a movie might do.

“They jump into conversations on everything from the World Cup to interviews with minor YouTube celebrities so that they can get attention. ... They don't just have one message, they push out multiple messages," he said, adding "one of them takes off and the others don't."

Often, their approach mimics that of pop stars including Katy Perry and Taylor Swift: "It's the combination of being very strategic and tailored, but also simultaneously authentic," Singer said. Celebrities, he explained, often mix promotional messages with more personal ones that appear to have been crafted by the celebrities themselves; in addition to spreading doctrine-related messages, ISIS accounts also often post more lighthearted photos and thoughts, he said.

Twitter is an especially complex space because "there's this seeming kind of contradiction where this technology is supposed to be bringing us together, but we're searching out and finding validation in people who think like us already."

Generally, Singer said, "what you're most likely to share online is not defined by its truth ... it's by whether it's validated what you thought before, and how many of your friends already shared it."

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