Islamic State pioneered modern online propaganda but their own techniques are now being turned against them to cause mistrust.
As one IS supporter angrily put it: “They’re using our hashtags to deceive us.”
This weekend, a group of young Iraqi hackers calling themselves ‘Daeshgram’ launched an operation to sow misinformation among IS members and supporters online, especially on Telegram – the encrypted messaging app favoured by the group. Basically, fake news for the so-called caliphate.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, one member of the group told me: “We had the goal of undermining the credibility and effectiveness of their media outlets in Telegram. And we also had the goal of making Telegram less preferred by ISIS.”
Part of the reason that IS prefers Telegram is how easy it is to set up a new account or channel when one is banned. But that also gives the opportunity to create new, fake accounts and steer IS members towards them.
The group started by disrupting Amaq, the media arm of IS, by flooding it with incoming traffic, forcing it offline – known as a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.
While it was offline, they posted links to fake versions of Amaq, created using the same language and templates.
In one, they announced the death of an IS fighter. In others, they put out messages designed to mock or undermine IS ideology.
“They didn’t know which ones were real, which were unreal, which one to trust – so they just stopped trusting Amaq,” the Daeshgram member said.
In Telegram conversations, IS members write with alarm that “they’re using our hashtags to deceive us”. In another, IS supporters turn on each other, questioning their loyalties and calling each other dogs. One wrote: “The more channels and groups we get, the more problems we get.”
Daeshgram has been studying IS since November last year.
The Daeshgram member, who specialises in the Arabic language, told me: “We were building credibility in ISIS telegram groups, understanding how they post things, what are the things they don’t want to hear, what are the things they want to see how, which type of content they post on their telegram groups.
“So we’ve created lots of confusion, lots of disputes among IS members from there, sometimes to the limit they were kicking out the admin and not believing in him, these kinds of things.”
Daeshgram is pausing its activities because half of its members have upcoming university exams, but will resume after that.
The anonymous member continued: “[ISIS] killed our people in Mosul and many other people. They abused people, they raped girls. They did every type of brutal thing so it’s really essential for us, as Iraqis and young Muslims, to fight those groups. And to tell the world that Isis is not a real representation of Islam.
“We just wanted to contribute in fighting ISIS, and we could fight it through media and through internet, which is as important as the physical realm.”