Operations are routinely accompanied by grim images and videos of the atrocities perpetrated by the extremists. At the same time, Isis also takes care to document the donation of toys to children and TVs and fans to civilians in the battle for hearts and minds.
Twitter has very recently started cracking down on accounts used by Isis, and other mainstream organisations may follow. But the propagandists are web savvy, and can exploit the internet just like anyone else.
This is how, unknowingly, a 26-year-old Polish man’s website has become an essential part of Isis’s propaganda machine.
JustPaste.it, owned and managed by Mariusz Żurawek, is being used by Isis to upload a large number of images of executions, beheadings and massacres, as well as more prosaic images of life – an essential part of the group’s social media operation.
The free service is run by Żurawek from his bedroom, until recently just in his spare time and with only occasional help from his brother. The service allows users to upload text, images and video.
Żurawek says: “You are able to do what you want with almost two clicks.” It doesn’t require registration, it isn’t searchable and access to specific content is only available via a link or if it makes the “most popular” page.
JustPaste.it’s role in Isis’s propaganda machine has largely gone unnoticed. All of the images uploaded to Żurawek’s service by Isis members have details of a related Twitter account stamped on them. The user’s Twitter handle is also printed at the bottom of each image, so reporters have been crediting the images to Twitter.
As the UK intensifies its involvement in Iraq, the Metropolitan police’s anti-terrorism unit has paid more attention to JustPaste.it and recently asked Żurawek to remove individual Isis posts. “I’ve got a constant cooperation with the UK police, and if they found any illegal materials, they just send a take-down notice,” he said. Police recently requested the site delete content including “videos attempting to persuade western Muslims to join Isis, graphic executions committed by Isis fighters and other material which incites violence and glorifies the actions of this group”, according to Żurawek.
But a huge number of posts remain on the site, including a full set of images, some of which were picked up by the Daily Mail from Twitter last week, that document the massacre of up to 500 prisoners of the Yazidi faith.
One set of images closely, and graphically, documents the beheading of a man as he is surrounded by a circle of people, including children. Another set sees a group of what the caption describes as 10 men in Raqqa murdered and piled up in the street. Other sets of images show the group detonating bombs and blowing up religious sites, and others show the daily life of fighters.
Isis’s corresponding Twitter accounts were all active until Tuesday evening, when they appear to have been suspended.
Twitter does not comment on account suspension cases but the company’s rules state that it will remove accounts that use excessively violent posts or threats and, in some cases, will do so at a government’s request.
Over the last two months JustPaste.it has seen a significant increase in the number of users, in part down to the large amount of traffic from the Middle East. According to Google Analytics, the platform has about 2.5 million unique users a month, which works out at about 6 million sessions every month. The service, Żurawek said, does not compete with advanced online text editors, such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365, but rather creates a place that is extremely easy and simple to use. It’s similar to Pastebin, the service popular with hackers, but with image files too.
Its most significant appeal for users such as Isis is that JustPaste.it runs fast even on slow internet connections. There are no additional items on the pages such as adverts or pop-ups, meaning it is extremely easy to use on mobile phones. “I’ve got a lot of traffic from Syria, where internet reception is very poor – people are using JustPaste.it for that reason,” Żurawek said.
Other than shutting it down, there is no way of stopping Isis using JustPaste.it. It is not possible to block users other than by detecting IP addresses or tracking users’ cookies. “If someone wants to be anonymous you can’t do anything. There is no difference if you’re using account registration or not,” Żurawek said. JustPaste.it users use proxy gates. Tor and the increased use of mobile phones mean blocking unwanted usage isn’t possible.
Asked about the use of his site and if Isis are criminals, Żurawek said: “Ask your government. As I said, I’m not a politician. I think that my feelings are not important in that situation. It’s a tragedy what’s going on now in Syria and Iraq, but also in Ukraine.
“I think that we should fight for freedom in the internet, but also fight things like child pornography. Freedom of speech is important, but it can’t be a shield for criminals.
“I do not want to interfere with any type of conflict and stay on one side. JustPaste.it is just a text-sharing platform. It’s more a politics thing to discuss than a business one. I don’t have enough information about Isis to tell the public if they are good or evil. JustPaste.it has many users. I cannot focus on a single group.
“I don’t see any reason why they should shut down the service. Should they shut down Twitter too? It’s not Turkey.”
As the propaganda war intensifies online, just as the physical war does on the ground, there are likely to be growing calls to regulate or crack down on services that can help disseminate such content. Small sites like Żurawek’s face the same ethical dilemma as giants Facebook and Google – who themselves are generally keen to be seen as platforms without responsibility for their content.
How do you feel about the web’s role as a conduit for propaganda? Should more efforts be made to intervene or is freedom of expression more important? Tell us below.