CaliphateTok: TikTok continues to host Islamic State propaganda

By Moustafa Ayad

13 June 2023

How does content supporting a designated terrorist organization continue to proliferate on TikTok? New research by ISD reveals how the Islamic State (IS) continues to unrestrictedly place propaganda on social media platforms like TikTok without facing any consequences. 

Content warning: graphic descriptions of violence


It took just four days for a video celebrating Omar Mateen — the terrorist who killed 49 people and injured 53 others at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016 — to garner more than 18,400 views and 1,110 likes on TikTok. The video features the now infamous photograph of Mateen snapping a selfie in a mirror with his mobile phone as the images of the victims flashed above him. The account that posted this video, which is part of an active Islamic State support network of 20 accounts with more than a million collective views, is indicative of the platform’s negligence in moderating terrorist content, despite its claims to the contrary.

Figure 1: An Islamic State support video featuring scenes from an execution insinuates that users 'will taste it'

Figure 1: An Islamic State support video featuring scenes from an execution insinuates that users ‘will taste it’

Amid a contentious public debate surrounding TikTok’s ability to mitigate potential data security and cybersecurity vulnerabilities, company representatives have consistently reaffirmed their commitment to moderating harmful online content, including by ‘identifying and removing content that incites or glorifies violence or promotes violent extremist organizations.’ Their inability to identify and remove obvious terrorist content raises questions about their ability to make good on this commitment, among others.

ISD research conducted during the first week of May 2023 indicates that official Islamic State content is being repurposed for TikTok and is not only evading the platform’s moderation efforts but seemingly getting worse. Research from ISD in 2021 found 11 Islamic State videos being shared openly on TikTok, including footage from executions. This time, ISD researchers were able to find the initial video supporting the Islamic State and to identify at least 20 other accounts posting similar Islamic State content using simple Arabic searches. These searches consisted only of the kunyas (an honorific name that can, in some instances, denote family ties) of Islamic State ideologues such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, considered the genesis behind the rise of the Islamic State, and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the former spokesman for the Islamic State. The ease with which these search terms yield results raises further questions about the efficacy of TikTok’s methods for limiting problematic content on their own platform.

ISD uncovered yet more Islamic State content producers on the platform using the follower and following lists of these main accounts. Researchers watched more than 100 videos produced by the 20 accounts in this network, some of which have amassed more than 500,000 views. During the period of analysis, five of the 20 accounts were removed by TikTok, most of which had racked up more than 500,000 views over the course of just a month. However, users were seemingly able to simply pivot to previously dormant accounts under their control to post more Islamic State content.

Original Sounds

As noted in ISD’s 2021 report, the audio that accompanies a TikTok (known as a ‘sound’) can often contain more egregious content than the videos themselves. Despite this, when a video with an ‘original sound’ is removed from the platform, the audio is usually not, meaning that it is still able to be featured by other users. In this case, the accounts similarly created original sounds using clips from official speeches given by Islamic State ideologues that were then picked up by other users.

Figure 2: The video featuring the voice of a former Islamic State spokesman laid over images of Middle East “tyrants” generated more than 634,000 views.

Figure 2: The video featuring the voice of a former Islamic State spokesman laid over images of Middle East “tyrants” generated more than 634,000 views.

One of the most popular videos (634.5K views), featuring the voice of the now dead Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir, the spokesman of the Islamic State after al-Adnani was killed, was viewed 634,000 times. The audio of al-Muhajir’s voice was used as the original sound for another 36 videos on the platform, generating another 154,120 views. The speech that formed the basis of the original sound was of al-Muhajir compelling ‘the “sons” of the Arabian Peninsula to “rise up against” the tyrants of the region’. His voiceover was placed on a series of still images of the Crown Prince and Prime Minster of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Another popular video (222.7k views), featured audio of al-Adnani speaking about the ‘liberation of Iraq and Syria under the auspices of the Islamic State’ and was used by 16 other videos found on the platform.

Calls for Action

This same video uses an emoji for a knife and an okay sign to indicate support for knife attacks, over the words “you will taste it.” While most of the videos reviewed by researchers use footage or the sounds of speeches by Islamic State ideologues, others appear to be calling for action. One specific user at the heart of the network urged users to “come to Africa” where attacks by the Islamic State are currently the most frequent.

Figure 3: An Islamic State support video venerating Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani garners over 45,000 views.

Figure 3: An Islamic State support video venerating Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani garners over 45,000 views.

 

Another video features an American foreign fighter who boasts that the Islamic State flag will fly over the White House and calls for “operations on their soil” to “avenge the blood of the Muslims.” The video goes on to illustrate to viewers to get a “knife and slice the throats of the kuffar,” (meaning ‘disbelievers’), and similarly “take advantage of the fact that you can easily obtain a rifle or pistol in America and spray the kuffar with bullets.” This video has more than 5,500 views and was one of 18 videos supportive of the Islamic State that were posted on the same profile. This user has so far generated 199,136 total views on TikTok.

 

 

 

Signposting & Coded Language

Both sets of creators of these videos noted above appeared to also be using TikTok to signpost supporters to other communication channels. The first (shown below) links to two Islamic State support Telegram channels using a QR code embedded into the videos. The second user similarly links to a well-known Islamic State stand-alone website in their TikTok bio and responds to other users that mocked the organization with video snippets from official Islamic State productions.

Figure 4: Two videos posted by users in the network signpost to Telegram channels

Figure 4: Two videos posted by users in the network signpost to Telegram channels

As is common on TikTok more broadly, these users often employ sarcasm and irony in their videos and captions to distort the context of their posts. One such video has 83,000 views and includes footage of a massacre of Shia in Iraq. The video does not show the killings of the Shia men but instead shows a black flag as gunshots ring out in the audio and an Islamic State ideologue says “Ahl al Sunna, the rafidah (a term used by the Islamic State supporters to smear Shia) are your enemies.” The user placed the text “no hate [heart emoji]” over the video. Taken as a single piece of content, it is easy to understand how this may not immediately present as supportive of the Islamic State, yet a simple scroll through the rest of the videos posted by the same user makes clear that the “no hate” caption is intended to be ironic.

In line with previous ISD findings regarding online Islamic State content, the accounts within this network used ninja and black flag emojis to signify they were Islamic State supporters. They similarly went by semi-coded screen names such as the “orchestra of gunfire,” or “the return of the caliphate.”

Other types of content produced by the network included a video praising the now dead Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and former spokesman al-Adnani. This particular video has been on the platform for more than a month and accumulated 45,900 views in that timeframe. Videos surfaced from within this network also included footage of Islamic State suicide bombers and their vehicles before detonation. There seemed to be no moderation of these accounts or the content in any shape or form.

While the Islamic State has faced a slew of decapitation strikes that have taken out their leadership in key regions, and attacks in Iraq by the Islamic State have dropped to negligible levels, support networks appear to have redoubled their efforts to highlight the strength of the Islamic State across several social media platforms. ISD and others have also drawn attention to the fact that the tactics used by these actors are growing more sophisticated in an attempt to counteract automated moderation efforts. However, the ease with which this network was surfaced on TikTok suggests that the company is not successful in restricting Islamic State use of the platform, posing a potentially serious national security risk to the United States.

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