Saturday, January 16th 2016
“. . . there is much more to Islamic State propaganda than brutality,” wrote Charlie Winter in “Islamic State Propaganda: Our Response to the Competion,” published by the Legatum Institute in November, 2015. This was one of three articles on “Cyber Propaganda: From how to start a revolution to how to beat ISIS” published by the Institute in its indispensable “Beyond Propaganda” series.
This rich and detailed paper runs only eight pages, so it should be read in full, not in summary. For instance, Winter opened with a discussion of five key characteristics that make Islamic State propaganda successful -- quantity, quality (production value), adaptability, narrative variation, and audience differentiation – each with valuable insights, analysis, and examples. ISIS relies on six key narratives -- brutality, mercy, belonging, victimhood, war, and uptopia. It runs simultaneous appeals to many different audiences.
He outlined “the response” by governments, the private sector (social media companies), the third sector (independent organizations), and communities. The main ways have been direct engagement, counter-propaganda campaigns, and sponsorship. He offered words of appreciation for the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications at a time when words of praise have been few. Also mentioned are the UAE’s Sawab Center; twitter accounts from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Australian Defence Force; responses by Google, Facebook, and Twitter; the Institute for Strategic Dialog; The Quilliam Foundation; and the Active Change Foundation.
The bottom line: “It is high time that we take a leaf out of Islamic State’s media strategy book and recognise that, at a minimum, all counter-propaganda efforts need to be scaled up and re-strategised.”
Here are just a few key quotes from Winter’s important paper:
- The key point here is that, whether it is trying to attract supporters or intimidate adversaries, Islamic State does not rely on any one narrative to convey its essage. Its propagandists manipulate a cocktail of themes that constantly change according to its priorities on the ground.
- Islamic State knows its audiences. Instead of operating on the naïve assumption that they have just one target demographic, the propagandists direct their output at a range of people, both supporters and adversaries.
- Understanding that different things appeal to different people is a crucial requisite for propagandistic success.
- . . . there is a limited amount of success to be had with direct engagement from states. Nevertheless, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) of the US State Department has persisted in directly and openly addressing violent extremists online, challenging their claims and ideological agendas on a one-to-one, open-source basis. There are no public metrics by which the effectiveness of these efforts are measured, but if we go by the CSCC’s stated intention to gain ground “across a wide variety of interactive digital environments that had been previously ceded to extremists”, they can be considered broadly successful. Indeed, in Islamic State’s Twitter echo chamber, one of the most constant fixtures is the CSCC’s Arabic “Outreach Team”. The extent of the resonance that the State Department’s digital outreach has with the supporters of Islamic State that it targets is a question likely to remain unanswered, regardless of how hotly it is debated. Whatever the case, though, it would be a mistake to call off such endeavours: jihadists may regard the CSCC’s arguments as spurious, and sometimes even humorous, but that does not mean that extremist voices should go unchallenged.
- Inevitably, state-led campaigns have suffered teething problems, most notoriously when the CSCC made the mistake of emphasising Islamic State’s brutality as a disincentive to joining it. However, it is important to bear in mind that Islamic State’s propaganda prowess did not emerge overnight, and these difficulties are to be expected as governments newly engage. Informed trial and error, while unappealing to traditionally risk-averse policymakers, is by far the best means of refining a given state’s strategy towards counter-propaganda.
- If the information war on Islamic State is to be won, it can only be done by making counter-extremism “cool”. Things must go viral of their own accord. People need to be interested without being spoon-fed. Empowering grassroots activists to engage independently is of paramount importance if meaningful progress is to become a reality.
- The vast majority of Muslim communities reject Islamic State and a number of grassroots initiatives have emerged to counter it, such as the fatwa from British imams in August 2014 that condemned all those who join the “tyrannical” Islamic State as “heretics”. As a community-led reaction, it helped prominent Muslims push back against the group and its ideology, while also lending theological credence to the assertions of David Cameron and Barack Obama that the “caliphate” is not Islamic. While this initiative must be commended, it is important to recognise that it had little or no bearing on those who had already joined the group or, indeed, those on the cusp of doing so. Once someone is at that stage, it takes a lot more than theological counter-arguments to convince them to abandon their extremism.
- It is high time that we take a leaf out of Islamic State’s media strategy book and recognise that, at a minimum, all counter-propaganda efforts need to be scaled up and re-strategised. Different target audiences must be engaged with different messages. Instead of just relying on a collection of worn-out counter-narratives, what is needed is an alternative set of ideas that is both robust and credible, not predicated upon its ability to undermine the claims of jihadists.
- Since June 2014, the back offices of Whitehall and Washington have been buzzing with terms like “counter-propaganda” and “narrative” more than at any point since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The adversary may have shifted from state to non-state, but the challenge is strikingly similar: rather like the Soviets, the Islamic State propagandists play the millenarian card and constantly stress the utopian nature of their “caliphate” state; rather like the Soviets, there is a preponderant focus on the military, be it troops training or tanks parading; and, rather like the Soviets, ideology is perpetually present in practically all messaging, though to varying degrees. Despite these substantial similarities, though, the differences are significant enough that efforts to counter this messaging need radical reappraisal.
- Of one thing we can be certain: governments alone are ill equipped to deal with the issue. Mitigating Islamic State’s media menace necessitates a cross-sector approach that involves the whole of society, not just specialised cliques within it.