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Why ISIS supporters can't stop tweeting about Ferguson

Police and protestors clash in LA after the Ferguson grand jury announcement.
Police and protestors clash in LA after the Ferguson grand jury announcement.
David McNew/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Since the news of Darren Wilson's non-indictment broke last night, some Arabic language journalists noticed something curious: pro-ISIS Twitter users were all over the Ferguson discussion. "It's horrible," Joyce Karam, the Washington Bureau chief for Al-Hayat, writes. "Most of the tweets when you look up "فيرغسون" ([Arabic] for Ferguson) are ISIS driven."

There might be something more to that than idle interest. From the point of view of an ISIS propagandist, the manifest injustice in Ferguson is a goldmine. It allows them to portray the United States as a vicious, repressive state that lies through its teeth about ideals of equality and democracy. The ISIS caliphate, in this view, is the only force that can take on this monstrosity.

It's difficult to tell whether highlighting Monday's grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is an official ISIS policy or just something its Twitter supporters have taken up on their own.

Souad Mekhennet, a journalist and associate at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, believes Ferguson is part of the group's actual strategy.

"According to interviews and social media, members of the group and sympathizers with its jihadist ideology are closely tracking the events in the St. Louis suburb," Mekhennet wrote in an August Washington Post article. "One argument [jihadis have] been making for years is that racism and discrimination are rampant in some parts of the West, and they're hoping the Ferguson riots could help recruit black Americans."

Either way, there's another reason it makes sense that ISIS would highlight Ferguson: to speak to ISIS's domestic and international audiences. ISIS is trying to convince Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, as well as Muslims worldwide, that the US is violent and evil and can only be confronted by force. Showing scenes of police repression inside the United States could help sell that.

ISIS is hardly the first to try this strategy. "In the early 1950s the State Department estimated that nearly half of Soviet propaganda was on the racial issue," UC-San Diego sociologist John David Skrentny writes.

The Soviet strategy, according to Skrentny, was designed to appeal to audiences in Africa and Asia. As these nations gained independence from their colonial overlords, the Soviets publicized images of Western racism to try to convince these countries to align with the Soviet Union rather than the racist West. There are echoes of this today, with American foreign policy seen by some as colonial and oppressive.

American policymakers took this seriously. When whites refused to let black students attend a newly desegregated school in Little Rock, Arkansas, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told the attorney general that "this situation was ruining our foreign policy. ... in Asia and Africa [it] will be worse for us than Hungary was for the Russians."

Little Rock nine

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort African-American students to Central High School in Little Rock in Sept. 1957, after the governor of Arkansas tried to enforce segregation. (National Archives/US Army)

President Eisenhower agreed — when he sent in the 101st Airborne to desegregate the Little Rock school, his public address cited international opinion and the Soviet threat as a major reason behind the move.

Domestic racial issues, then, have been a liability for American foreign policy in the past. The approach to Ferguson taken by ISIS, or at least its supporters, is just picking up where the Soviet Union left off.

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