Islamic State (ISIS) supporters are using U.S. hostage Steven Sotloff as brutal fodder in a Twitter campaign which hijacks trending topics with the message #StevensHeadinObamasHands. The TIME reporter was paraded in an orange jumpsuit in the same video which featured James Foley, the U.S. journalist who was abducted in Syria and beheaded.
UK Daily Mail Now Arabic-speaking extremists are attaching Mr Sotloff’s face to a string of barbaric English-language ‘memes’ in what appears to be a direct appeal to Western citizens. Islamic State supporters have spread the messages in tweets which mention completely unrelated topics in pop culture.
They have included #AskRicky, through which fans of Youtube ‘vlogger’ Ricky Dillon could pose him questions, and #FetusUANDay, where fans of the boy band One Direction examined how much they had changed since their 2011 album Up All Night. Others have included #NapaEarthquake and #camcam, in which fans of another Youtube celebrity Cameron Dallas post their pictures with him.
Experts say the use of U.S. pop culture – despite being against the extreme interpretation of Sharia law enforced by the militants – encourages Western teenagers to click on the messages and spread them further. Various messages threaten that Mr Sotloff or U.S. soldiers will be murdered and the 9/11 attacks will be repeated.
Others demand the release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, the detention centre which has been downsized hugely since President Obama ordered its closure in 2009 but remains active.
The hashtag has, however, spread to the point that moderate commentators have begun using it to hit back at the militants in an echo of the #AMessageFromISIStoUS hashtag – which users reversed into #AMessageFromUStoISIS. A huge number of replies have also emanated from Saudi Arabia, whose king denounced Islamist militants earlier this month saying it was ‘shameful and disgraceful that these terrorists are doing this in the name of religion’.
A British propaganda expert who has studied Islamic extremism told MailOnline the influx of Western recruits into Iraq and Syria – including up to 500 from Britain – has given militants a new insight into how to maximise their message of fear.
Professor Nicholas O’Shaughnessy from Queen Mary University of London, who wrote Politics and Propaganda: Weapons of Mass Seduction, said: ‘Al Qaeda before them pioneered a lot of these techniques, but unlike Isis they had certain boundaries. They wouldn’t directly show a killing but instead an explosion in the distance.
‘What Isis have done is to stress the ghoulish side as much as possible, and they’re using very mainstream ideas about celebrity to carry that twisted message. ‘Isis is much more aware of and embedded in Western culture than previous organizations, no doubt helped by the fact that it has a few thousand Western recruits.
‘These Twitter messages are recruiting devices for young males to join them who have no purpose in their lives, who are bored and deeply alienated. They’re using the cultural forms of alienated urban youth to try and recruit them.’
Mr Sotloff, 31, from Miami, Florida, was working as a freelance journalist when he was kidnapped in August last year near Aleppo, Syria.
The video released last week was the first time his parents Arthur and Shirley had heard from him since December, but there are doubts over when the video was shot.
A petition calling on the White House to ‘do everything possible’ to free Mr Sotloff has gained more than 10,000 signatures.