These past few weeks, world attention has focused yet again on the fertile crescent, where Islamic State (IS) forces now control large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria. Following attacks on Kurdish controlled areas—home to a U.S. consulate, American civilians and oil and gas companies—and with the prospect of genocide facing a minority Kurdish sect (Yazidi), the United States has conducted tactical air strikes on IS positions and sent 100+ military advisers to consult Iraqi and Kurdish security forces.
While the war on the ground is focused on tactical positions, offensives and counteroffensives, there is also a media war taking place online focused on content proliferation and audience targeting. One such venue for this is Twitter; a quick survey of Twitter accounts by Ntrepid analysts revealed more than twenty IS-related accounts with followers ranging from a few thousand to more than 85,000. While Twitter has taken active steps to shut down IS-related accounts such as the Al-Hayat media account and accounts for key leaders, many simply return under a different handle name. The Iraqi and Kurdish governments also have quite a few Twitter accounts, including accounts focused solely on targeting English-speaking audiences (image at right).
Having accounts in multiple languages allows groups to tailor their content according to the audience they are ultimately trying to reach; however, in the case of Twitter, the ability to follow all of the different accounts means that in reality, users on Twitter can have a complete picture of the content being put out by these groups, private accounts withstanding.
This is not the case for websites, such as news services, which can adjust content according to a user’s IP address and therefore have a tighter control over the information promoted to particular audiences. Below are screenshots of the home page of Kurdstat, a Kurdistan-based Kurdish news service, accessed simultaneously from a U.S.-based IP address (Figure 1) and a non-U.S. IP address (Figure 2).
As evidenced by the images, the version of the website displayed to the U.S.-based IP address is clearly U.S.-centric, with the main article focused on the White House’s demand that (then-Iraqi PM) Al-Maliki respect the Iraqi political process rather than comments made by Turkish PM Erdogan (also featured in the U.S. version, though with less prominence). While this is probably an attempt on the part of Kurdstat to provide content it thinks U.S. readers will find more compelling, it highlights how easy it is for a website to adjust content and control the flow of information to particular audiences based on IP address.
It raises the question, as you read content about international issues such as the current events in Iraq, how much of what you read is being manipulated by the sites you are visiting? Are you seeing the content on a site that you want to see, or are you seeing the content that they want you to see? The answer is likely both, but unless you are able to browse from different points of view, it is hard to know for certain, which makes navigating complicated geopolitical issues like the events on the ground in Iraq all the more difficult.