By Moign Khawaja and Sara Dissanayake
The Islamic State, previously calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a Sunni jihadist group active in Iraq and Syria. The group has been labeled a terrorist organisation by the UN for committing gross human rights violations, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.
Apart from having a fearsome reputation on the battlefield, IS also has an elaborate public relations strategy in which it has effectively used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, Instagram, Tumblr, internet memes and other social media to spread its ideology and recruit new members. Its members and sympathisers regularly upload videos and images of their operations, hostage footage, and ‘constructive’ activities in areas under its control. The terrorist group glorifies violence in the images and videos it disseminates online and believes all attention is good attention.
IS not only relies on its supporters for promoting its propaganda on social media, but also maintains official social accounts where it posts exclusive content. Islamic State’s use of modern communication, especially social media, to propagate its ideology has helped it win new recruits and engage its adversaries in psychological warfare.
‘ISIS chan,’ a cute anime character drawn by hacktivists, is now being used to troll IS. Over the last few months, ISIS-chan has flooded Twitter by hijacking hashtags used by IS supporters. Since IS regards drawing as a religious taboo, dissemination of ISIS-chan images represent a strong cultural resistance force and a rejection of IS and its extremist ideology.
VOX-Pol’s Moign Khawaja obtained an interview with the individual/group behind the creation and dissemination of ISIS-chan, to find out more about the satirical campaign and see how effectively it is countering and discrediting Islamic State’s ideology on the internet. VOX-Pol’s Sara Dissanayake also contributed to the interview by asking Japan-specific questions and translating the text from Japanese to English.
Following is the text of the interview with ISIS-chan’s @ISISvipper:
1) How did ISIS-chan come into existence? Was there an incident which triggered its creation?
The trigger was because of the Japanese hostages beheading. After the beheading Al Jazeera reported on its The Stream show. After that they came across Hinomoto Oniko which panned out into ISIS-chan.
2) What are the reasons you guys choose Twitter? When was the first ISIS-chan tweet posted?
Dissemination on twitter is really high. Also you can respond to media reports on Twitter easily. However, Twitter is only a part of our campaign. Initially, we started off with 2Chan, 4Chan, Facebook and other online forums (social media platforms) and then we expanded to Twitter.
Now our goal is to disseminate ISIS-chan to all channels ISIS terrorists are potentially using for propaganda.
Around the same time the Japanese hostage crisis happened, we posted our tweet on the link provided.
3) What is the message ISIS-chan group intends to give to the world in general and Muslims in particular?
We don’t particularly have a message but if we have to say something, the overall message we want to deliver is to always be prepared without any fear. Enjoy your life and don’t be tense. Lessen the burden on your shoulders. Take it easy!
We don’t identify ourselves with ISIS terrorists, but it is not good to run away from existing problems. ISIS Chan is a symbol of battling terrorism and put up a struggle to weed it out.
4) What do you think ISIS thinks about ISIS-chan and her sabotage of their propaganda?
They must be startled and that is one of our objectives. Because we are the descendants of ninjas.
5) What kind of messages have you received from ISIS supporters on the internet?
We got threats and gory images sent to us. At the same time, we received fan letters from Al Nusra Front supporters.
6) What are the rules of drawing an ISIS-chan meme?
We have very simple rules. We don’t want any images which may make people feel uncomfortable. Any images that facilitate maximum dissemination is ideal for us.
7) What do you say to Muslims who find ISIS-chan offensive?
ISIS-chan is a personification to counter ISIS propaganda and it has nothing to do with Muslims. The outfit that ISIS-chan wears is not a hijab or a burka but the outfit that ISIS terrorists wear. What we want to achieve is to dilute the fear of terrorist images of dark characters in black outfits and replace it with cute, loveable ISIS-chan images. We want to put ISIS and our message together which dilutes the fear in people’s mind and brings them to our cute characters.
We want to do google bombing and pollute the search for ISIS.
8) Why do you think trolling ISIS is a good idea? Why do you think it is effective?
Like was done with Hinomoto Oniko and ISIS collage grand prix, we took ISIS images and imposed it with our own. So basically we wanted to destroy ISIS’s terrorist images.
If you run a search for ISIS related images on let’s say Google, how will you feel when you come across ISIS-chan images? It will be uncool for ISIS, and unexpected for us because the images are so cute and funny. So basically we want to give users some mixed feelings which hopefully will dilute those intimidating feelings of ISIS images and let them forget fear from ISIS images.
9) Do you have any plans of publishing an ISIS-chan comic series?
Somebody will make it in future but it already exists online. Some ISIS-chan comics have already been published in Japanese magazines.
The idea is that anyone can participate in the campaign right from the beginning. In Japan we already have the pop culture, anime and manga and online is the best medium to disseminate it. We are currently doing #UTAU and #MMD. What we did with Hatsune Miku, we will do the same with ISIS-chan.
10) What is ISIS-chan’s message to ISIS?
“Knives should only be used to cut melons”. This is our catchphrase from the very beginning. ISIS-chan delivers a lecture on how to use knives for people who do not know how to use it. So in general, our message is to stop killing people.
11) How popular/well known is ISIS-chan in Japan?
It is quite well known, as it was picked up on Japanese TV shows. There have been several TV shows, internet articles and newspapers that have featured ISIS-Chan. Furthermore, in Japan and Thailand especially ISIS-chan has effectively dominated the results in the search engine.
Many have showed a positive attitude towards ISIS-chan, and those who are skeptical/negative about it, are those who are in general ignorant of the ISIS-chan persona, or those who are ignorant/skeptical about terrorism in general.
Those who are interested in ISIS or terrorism in general, eventually get to know about ISIS chan as a part of the process. This is probably why ISIS-chan has been featured in some classes in schools and university lectures in Japan.
12) What is the overall fan-base of the ISIS chan supporters in Japan?
There is a good mix of people in the fan-base in terms of:
Gender: A good mix of male and female, but probably slightly more female
Age: Wide-ranging from middle school kids to people in their fifties
Occupation: We are not sure as many don’t specify this on the web, but there are people with wide-ranging background, including university professors and ‘blue-collared’ professionals.
All in all, we cannot identify a particular or single group that constitutes as supporters. However, these are the following ‘categories’ of people who tend to constitute our fan-base:
- Those who like to draw as hobbies
- Those who are creative (graphic designers, arts and crafts)
- Those who are manga and anime fans
- Those who are interested in social issues in general
- Those who take interest in countering terrorism
- Those find joy in causing panic and disruption to the society
Moign Khawaja is a PhD. student at Dublin City University (DCU). His research focuses on how Islamist extremist groups are using social media for propaganda and recruitment. You can follow him on Twitter: @moignkhawaja. Sara Dissanayake is a post-doctoral researcher of VOX-Pol Programme, an EU-funded academic network focused on researching violent online political extremism, at Dublin City University, Ireland.