As the world focuses on the spread and containment of the coronavirus (COVID-19), statements on the virus are also appearing in the online communications of Islamic State supporters. What is being expressed and how the “virus” is materializing in the online world, may or may not surprise you.
In recent weeks, just as mainstream media and individuals across the globe discuss developments, preparations, and their fears about the virus, coronavirus themed posts began to appear as early as February 2020, on social messaging platforms used by Islamic State and its supporters. The amount of posts, in comparison to common narratives within pro-Islamic State social media, are far from significant, however the emergent themes are noteworthy because they correlate with dominant themes found in Islamic State messaging.
A handful of the coronavirus themes observed on pro-Islamic State social media platforms, reflect what Winter describes as “victimhood” and “brutality.” Victimhood appears in a post about the coronavirus and racism. It has been reported that an increase in xenophobic and anti-Asian racism is occurring as the coronavirus spreads. This news was used by an Islamic State supporter on the social messaging platform RocketChat, by adjusting the narrative towards the Chinese government’s oppressive treatment of the Uyghur population. In this way the coronavirus was utilized to express victimhood of the Muslim community (the ummah) due to the Chinese government treating Uyghurs as “vermin.” As Schmid notes, the concept of defending the ummah against aggressors is a common theme in Islamic State propaganda. The post also expressed a theme of revenge, noting that the Chinese government was now getting a taste of their own medicine. Additional posts reflecting themes of victimhood and revenge, focus on rejectors (rāfiḍah) being afflicted by the coronavirus for their “crimes against the ummah.”
The theme of brutality was observed in text attached to the posting of a series of mass execution images, where the victims lay dead in front of their executioners. Even though the images are from Islamic State’s West African province, the text alludes to the victims’ corpses representing the streets of Europe and America due to the coronavirus. A subsequent post explains that the coronavirus only affects disbelievers, rejectionists, and apostates; frightening disinformation to spread during a global pandemic. Despite the absurdity of this suggestion, it is not surprising that the post makes these claims, since the narrative reflects strength and the notion of Islamic State outlasting its enemies in what Munoz describes as the long-war narrative. Although the long-war narrative that Munoz defines is more operational, it is also reflected in the hypothetical ideas of Islamic State supporters.
Additional coronavirus posts include highlighting virus death tolls in Iran with anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite sentiments. Posts of this nature not only involve text, but imagery of Shiite clerics superimposed against virus cells. Furthermore, memes have been posted with text from Hadith 43 in the Book of Medicine which state, “If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place.” Furthermore, an infographic on the “Islamic Cure” for coronavirus uses a story about the Prophet Muhammad and states that if you recite supplications six times a day “nothing evil will touch” you. It has been noted that the use of religious narratives provides Islamic State and its propaganda with legitimacy among supporters. On pro-Islamic State social media platforms, supporters are seen using the same tactics employed by the organization.
Another noteworthy observation is on the encrypted messaging platform Telegram, where “corona” in English and Arabic (کرونا) has appeared in the names of a handful of newly created pro-Islamic State channels. This could be for a number of reasons, ranging from capitalizing off a timely topic, to evading channel shutdowns by using non-Islamic State themed channel names and avatars. A similar use of non-Islamic State themed account names and avatars has been witnessed on Telegram, since late 2015, when Telegram slowly began policing the platform for Islamic State content. However, since the November 2019 Europol and Telegram coordinated action against terrorist content, where thousands of pro-Islamic State accounts were disabled, propagandists and Islamic State supporters have had difficulty gaining a steady foothold on the platform. New accounts are regularly created and shutdown, sometimes within hours of their creation. This has caused supporters to look elsewhere spreading across multiple messaging platforms and seeing what sticks; quite similar to a virus.
As the coronavirus continues to spread, maintaining its newsworthy status, there will undoubtedly be further supporter created content concerning the virus. In the past, Islamic State and its supporters have exploited mainstream media and current events for their own propaganda purposes. The coronavirus is no different. It provides Islamic State supporters with a fresh and current topic that is malleable for adaptation into common propaganda narratives, however unlike Islamic State’s physical enemies, the coronavirus is unseen and indiscriminate.