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Alone, online, and not typing, one forgets to be a discrete person. With four tabs of something fascinating and every biological need sated, the idea of a ‘continuing personality’ seems laughable – all you are is interested. You become subsumed into the system as a reader, safe in the knowledge that your reading is invisible, anonymous, secret. This kind of comfort is illusory, of course – just ask any of the guys a friend of mine has caught combing through her Tumblr – but hard to shake.
But you do. You click ‘like’ on the link and it becomes something of ‘yours’. You realise that whatever you are reading presents a subjectivity so drastically different to yours that you find yourself making comparisons, picking out the incongruous similarities from the overwhelming asymmetry. You find yourself reading the Ask.fm* account of an ISIS militant and realising you use the same slang as them.
No, really. ISIS militants say “tho”. ISIS militants use Kik. ISIS militants leave detached a lowercase “lol” below questions they deem ridiculous. ISIS militants take sides in the other great conflict of our time, coming down firmly in the Samsung camp. Then, among all the familiarity: “are you afraid to die?”
The transnational nature of this decade’s extremist group makes this kind of experience unavoidable. The fighters come from all over the world – often speaking English – and are organised enough to run traffic systems, not just social-media accounts. Yet however many Vice docos one watches, it’s easy to think of the guys shaking assault rifles over their heads as completely alien, as people with experiences so far from our own that any understanding is impossible. They may be responding to lifelong structural violence supported by the West in the only way possible, we admit, but once they start beheading people, our ability to understand drains away. These casual social-media presences destabilise them as such a definite ‘other’. An alien quantity doesn’t type: “Ya Allah when it’s my time to go have mercy on my soul have mercy on my bros”.
ISIS know this. Their social-media arm is stupendous, a form of propaganda the world has never seen. With an official Android app, they are consistent when they need to be and varied when they don’t – basically, the app takes over your Twitter account for their special broadcast tweets (making sure they are sent out on thousands of accounts simultaneously) but leaves it under your control at all other times, allowing militants to develop/foster their own personal identities as members of ISIS – as real people. So yes, it’s a form of propaganda, a form that kind of works.
I would never presume to understand the experiences of those on either side of the conflicts in the Middle East, and clearly ISIS are a despicable operation. But they’re not aliens. Bro.
*Ask.fm is a site where you can answer people’s anonymous questions, much like the Formspring of our youth. Ask your little brother.