Image courtesy of the Washington Post. Image courtesy of the Washington Post.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

ISIS is getting high marks – both for the territory that it’s seized (roughly the size of Indiana) – and for it’s use of the media.  Consider this comment from a feature story in the New York Times:

“In the evolution of modern jihadist propaganda, Bin Laden, addressing a single static camera with long-winded rhetoric in highly formal Arabic, represented the first generation. (His videos had to be smuggled to Al Jazeera or another television network to be aired.) The most prominent figure of the second generation was the YouTube star Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, who addressed Westerners in colloquial English, had a blog and Facebook page and helped produce a full-color, English-language magazine called Inspire.

ISIS is online jihad 3.0. Dozens of Twitter accounts spread its message, and it has posted some major speeches in seven languages. Its videos borrow from Madison Avenue and Hollywood, from combat video games and cable television dramas, and its sensational dispatches are echoed and amplified on social media. When its accounts are blocked, new ones appear immediately. It also uses services like JustPaste to publish battle summaries, SoundCloud to release audio reports, Instagram to share images and WhatsApp to spread graphics and videos.”

This digital success, however, comes with an Achilles heel. The more content ISIS puts online and the more access ISIS allows users in order to get their message out – then the more data ISIS provides the world to better understand and describe the present threat. As Delia Ephron recently put it, “The web is now your permanent record. And everything is going on it.”

Which is where Bellingcat comes in – primarily a big data journalism effort to verify images from conflict zones.  The site’s founder, Eliot Higgins, has gained notoriety recently for a couple things: (publicly) geolocating critical ISIS and Russian activities, and teaching others to do so via his Bellingcat website.

But in the careful hands of the right individuals, these tools could be used to wage meaningful open source information warfare against ISIS, as well as against the Russian incursion into Ukraine.  Considering the growing importance of this domain, if I were a junior officer, I would jump at the chance to develop this skill set and learn (maybe even potentially shape) how information impacts warfare.