Jihad Selfies: British Extremists in Syria Love Social Media
After being publicly sacked by al Qaeda leader Aymann al-Zawahiri and accidentally beheadinga fighter from one of their main allies in Syria, it’s fair to say the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)’s PR campaign has suffered in recent weeks. So, like any half decent group of militant extremists, they obviously want to address this slip. Unfortunately, a traditional media outreach is very difficult for them, given ISIS’s policy of kidnapping journalists. So they’ve turned, like many before them, to social media.
Over the past few weeks, foreign fighters from ISIS and their subgroup the Muhajireen Brigade have been busy uploading selfies across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, in an effort to publicize their cause and win more recruits to the Syrian jihad. They offer a bizarre and fascinating look inside Syria’s most feared and least understood militant groups.
On paper, the Muhajireen Brigade are separate to ISIS, but they’re considered by some analysts to be a front group for the larger jihadist outfit. The social media evidence seems to support this view.
This picture (above) shows British fighter Ibrahim al-Mazwagi in battle with Omar Shishani, a Georgian Chechen who formerly led the Muhajireen Brigade, and is now ISIS’s military commander in Northern Syria.
Al-Mazwagi was killed in battle in February, aged 21. This is a collage made to honor him as a martyr, along with his friend and fellow casualty, Abu Qudama.
Above are two other recent British martyrs, Choukri Ellekhlifi, 22, and Mohammed el-Araj, 23. The pair are shown here at a jihadist internet café in Atmeh, a Syrian border town that is now firmly under ISIS control.
Mexican Drug Cartels Love Social Media
Members of Mexico’s drug cartels are really starting to harness the power of the internet, using it to run positive PR campaigns, post selfies with their pistols, and hunt down targets by tracking their movements on social media.
Antoine Nouvet from the SecDev Foundation, a Canadian research organization, has been working with drug policy think-tank the Igarapé Institute on a project called the Open Empowerment Initiative. The project looks into “how cyberspace is empowering individuals and rewiring relations in Latin America” and has uncovered a wealth of information about how cartels are using the internet to their own nefarious ends.
The first point Antoine touched on was how cartels have utilized cyberspace in much the same way as a TV company’s PR department might: “They advertise their activities, they conduct public relations initiatives, and they have basically turned themselves into their own media company,” he explained. “Colombia’s cartel groups or drug traffickers in Myanmar in the 1990s were very sophisticated at public relations, but they didn’t have this massive broadcasting platform.”
Lean On Me: Instagram’s Codeine Kingpin Sent Me Emoji Death Threats
As I write this, a drug dealer wants me dead. It might be spelled out in Emoji, but a death threat’s a death threat.
There is an Atlanta-based drug dealer who is convinced I ripped him off for at least a few pints of Actavis-brand prescription cough syrup—a potent mixture of codeine and promethazine. You and I know it as “lean” or “drank.”
I’ve never consumed lean. I’ve never met this dealer. I’ve never even been to Atlanta.
This entire “encounter” took place on Instagram, where hundreds of accounts are selling lean, weed, and a variety of prescription pills in a virtual open-air drug market. Many of these accounts aren’t even private.
Remember Silk Road? That mysterious, deep-web drug market? (Which, by the way, was recently shut down and seized by the United States government) It’s kind of like that, but on the same iPhone app that you use to take a photo of your brunch. The same app that Facebook bought for a billion dollars, or roughly 2.85 million pints of Actavis, the leading lean brand.
They sell it, often overnight it, and you can text them your order.
/ / /
Lean, Oil, Mud, Texas Tea, Dirty Sprite, Drank, Sizzurp—the archetypal Styrofoam cup filled with purple liquid you’re picturing is a cocktail of promethazine and codeine, mixed with Sprite, and garnished with a Jolly Rancher. Lean is often touted by rappers and, like hip-hop itself, it took off in an isolated area (Houston) and propagated itself outwardly. H-Town luminaries like DJ Screw and UGK’s Pimp C championed the stuff—and they also died from overdoses.
And, recently, everything is purple. Houston-based rapper Fat Tony—who claims to never drink lean himself—says, “[Lean] has a long history of being associated with rap music because of DJ Screw and Houston music, but now, it’s so popular now because every rap song mentions lean.” The 25-year-old continues, “Look at the top 20 tapes on like livemixtapes and I guarantee that every one of them has several lean mentions, whether it’s a Lil Wayne tape, a Jeremih tape, a Chief Keef tape, a Migos tape, a Rich Homie Quan tape, a Kevin Gates tape, an A$AP tape, or TDE artists like Schoolboy Q or Ab-Soul—even Odd Future artists like Mellowhype. It’s more popular in rap music than I’ve ever seen it before.”
MrPimpGoodGame Is the King of the Instagram Selfie
At first glance, Benny Winfield Jr. seems like a normal 37-year-old who works as a customer-service rep, lives in the suburbs of Houston, and tutors children in his spare time. But online, he’s MrPimpGoodGame, the self-proclaimed “King of the Selfie Movement,” whose prolific Instagram gallery has garnered a cult following due to his signature look: an honest smirk and a shiny head. Although the selfie has been criticized among the ranks of pseudointellectuals, girls who watch Girls, and actual psychiatrists for its seemingly trivial implications on mainstream culture, MrPimpGoodGame takes it all at face value, because according to him, a selfie is face value.
Instead of talking to some Freudian dork about the psychosemantics of the selfie, I wanted to get in touch with a professional. So I web-chatted with MrPimpGoodGame to talk about his newfound fame, business ventures, and women.
MrPimpGoodGame: I was trying to be funny at first. I didn’t think it would take off like this.
Did you have a normal person Instagram before?
No, I’ve always been doing this because it’s what I do. My original account was PimpGoodGame and I was getting so much attention that I had to shut it down because I had co-workers on there. So then I started MrPimpGoodGame and really pushed the selfie movement.
What’s the movement about?
The selfie movement is about loving the way you look, even if you’re having a bad hair day. No matter what. It’s always appropriate to take a selfie.
Apparently Women Love This 13-Year-Old Skateboarder Named Baby Scumbag
Steven Fernandez, aka Baby Scumbag, is just a normal 13-year-old skater from a bad neighborhood in LA. A normal 13-year-old skater who’s sponsored by a bunch of companies, has 38,000 subscribers onFacebook and 140,000 followers onInstagram, and gets photographed with guns and sexy (adult) women. He’s been skating since he was nine (here’s a video of him at 11), but unlike other absurdly talented kids likeRene Serrano and Evan Doherty, he’s developed a whole persona that revolves around trying to get girls and eating junk food (again: typical 13-year-old). It’s hard to tell how much of that is him putting on an act and how much of that is real, but either way, young Stephen knows more about what people on the internet like than all the “social media gurus” two and three times his age put together. I called him to ask what he wants to be when he grows up.
VICE: Hey, Steven how’s it going? I didn’t force you to miss school, right?
Baby Scumbag: Hey, VICE lady. Just chillin’. Just got home from school. Got out a little early.
You like school, or what?
Yeah, school is cool, but it’s kind of tough out here in poverty. You see a lot bad stuff around here, like gang-related stuff, drugs. I live in Compton, California. The border of South Central.
So, you’re super popular at school, right?
Nah, I’m just a normal kid going to school. An average teenager.
How did you get start getting sponsored?
Well it all started when I had posted a video of skateboarding, and people actually enjoyed watching the video. As I started making more videos, I started getting more sponsors as well.
What’s a typical day in the life of Baby Scumbag?
Hang out at school, homework, skateboarding, maybe even go film. And a little masturbation.
I Don’t ‘Get’ Instagram
Hey, you know what’s not actually a new thing and that people can all stop going crazy about? Having a phone on your camera. I mean, my phone cost £11.99 and it’s got a fucking camera on it. Getting excited about having a camera on your phone is a bit like getting excited about having a takeaway coffee or playing a song off your laptop. It ain’t no thing.
Still, half the adverts I see on TV are for cameras and phones with cameras on them. There’s usually a smiling mum photographing her snowboarding child in the ultra zoom and capturing their soul in a Twitpic forever, and we’re all being told we should be doing this. We’re told that life is passing us by and that if we don’t take pictures of every banal moment in our lives – like Guy Pearce in Memento – these moments will be lost to us forever. It’s like we’re being told not to trust our own memories.
We’re not just being encouraged to be the official club photographers of our own existences, either – we’re also being told that we should be documenting every meal as if we were preparing for a retrospective at the Saatchi gallery. This idea finds its epitome and is perpetuated most fervently by something called Instagram. You might have heard of it.
I don’t know what it was about the turn of the century – maybe we all got carried away and thought we were the “chosen ones” because our lives spanned two different millennia? – but something in the atmosphere at that time seemed to make us fall in love with ourselves. Our inflated sense of self-esteem is probably why we were complacent enough to allow Travis and jeans that looked like tents to pass as youth culture and why we all bought into the myth that there was an artist in residence within all of us. No longer did we have to be constructive members of society to survive its wilderness, we could all make a living designing logos for juice bars and running our own coffee shops/galleries/grime labels. Don’t have the requisite money, talent, intelligence or motivation to do that? It’s cool, just get a bank loan or win a competition, or something – we got you, B.
Think I’m generalising? Well, in 2001, I rode my micro scooter into school one day to be told by my art teacher that I’d been commissioned by the council to design a mural for a local underpass. This confused me, partly because I was 12 and partly because I was old enough to realise that I was a shitty artist. I declined, went on to achieve a G-grade at GCSE, killed my art teacher’s dream that I had my own suburban version of Guernicaburied within me and spent the rest of my adolescence telling posh girls that I wasn’t appreciated by the heathens at the exam board and that Van Gogh never sold a painting either.
In the cold light of the dole queue, most of us now realise that this was a complete crock of shit, and it’s probably the reason why anyone under the age of 30 is an insufferable bastard with a sense of entitlement equal to that of an exiled Nepalese prince (myself included). The age of Blair begat the culture of rampant self-obsession and bullshit aspiration that brought us Olly Riley and Emmanuel Frimpong rather than the next Issac Newton.
Then there was Banksy, who proved that all you really needed to make it as an artist was a series of ill-informed, left of centre, political metaphors and a rudimentrary understanding of graphic design to get Alan Yentob and Alain De Botton calling you “The Shoreditch Goya” or some shit.
Of course, this has been going on for a while and you only need to go to any South London art college’s graduate private view to see that the vast majority of modern creatives should’ve just taken that job at Snappy Snaps. Recently, though, this ludicrous idea that anybody can be a doyenne of self-expression has found its cruddy conclusion in the unlikely guise of a free smartphone app.