ISIS Fan-Boys as Force Multipliers

Curator's Note

Although the June 2014 fall of Mosul to ISIS first marked the organization’s global political profile, a series of brutal decapitations - in graphic, high-resolution video – eclipsed the feat of territorial conquest. International attention fixed on Islamic State’s horrific violence. Against this backdrop, media continue to fixate upon the so-called “slick propaganda machinery,” as the group churns out one technically polished production after another. Pundits, politicians, academics, and security experts debate the potential consequences for Western countries, due to high rates of foreign fighters ready to travel to ISIS-held territory. Reliable estimates of ISIS’ popularity are difficult, given the large numbers of “passive” sympathizers online—as well as the organization’s deft exploitation of online techniques designed to inflate the appearance of support. However, analyses of support expressed by anonymous fans, rather than the centralized bureaucratic apparatus, remain few and far between. Despite occasional tabloid headline expressing shock over the selfies and social networking presence of residents in ISIS-held territory, a pressing need exists to examine the proliferation of pop culture, memes, and fan-like digital behavior as critical components of populist propaganda—pseudo-anonymous productions that may function as persuasive elements in cyber-radicalization. “Jihadi pop culture” reveals potentially reveals more concerning ISIS’ appeal than speculations about religiosity and social disaffection, or alleged “brain-washing” through professional propaganda creations. For example, the online market for ISIS hoodies, buttons, t-shirts, and flags (in addition to bobble-head dolls, and coffee mugs) indicates a burgeoning identification of extremist-related merchandise as counter-culture fashion—akin to the anti-establishment connotations of Che Guevara posters throughout college dorms. Even the cupcake craze has caught on: Instagram regularly features sugared support messages – from as far afield as South Africa. Radical remixes of LOL Cats, “Keep Calm,” and #BringBackOurGirls coexist with The Simpsons and Lord of the Rings. Fan-boys (and girls) reference pop culture to comment on broader regional politics—force-multipliers in a vernacular recognizable to youth of the digital age. To discover ISIS’ appeal, there is no need to consult the Qur’an when the fan club sells t-shirts.

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