Leon G. Shahabian and Tara D. Sonenshine, newsday.com
Image from article, with caption: Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi rest before crossing the Bzebiz bridge after spending the night walking towards Baghdad, as they flee their hometown, 65 km west of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, May 16, 2015
THE BOTTOM LINE
Paltry way to combat terrorists’ narrative
This is another week with terrorism on our minds.
Against the backdrop of the devastating suicide bombing in Turkey, the presence of a Syrian refugee at President Barack Obama’s address, along with a victim of the San Bernardino shootings, and one of the Americans who helped thwart an attack on a Paris-bound train are all stark reminders of the centrality of terrorism. The first lady’s guests at the State of the Union speech represent collective hope that America, together with its allies, can stop the spread of violent extremism.
In advance of the address, the State Department announced it was revamping its efforts against violent extremism communications through a new global engagement center designed to better synchronize messaging to foreign audiences to undermine the disinformation espoused by extremist groups. While laudable in its inclusion of more non-governmental organizations and greater locally conceptualized social media campaigns, the initiative will be woefully underfunded. The new head of the center will oversee an annual budget of $5 million — a fraction of what the U.S. spends writ large on fighting terrorism. (The military, alone, spends $60 billion a year on operations aimed at combating terrorism in addition to what the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security provide.)
While money can’t solve every problem, it helps to have enough to meet the challenge. Talking about a “counter narrative” that can beat back the terrorist narrative and undermine the ideology of the Islamic State and its adherents is cheap. Doing something about it takes resources along the lines of what ISIS spends.
According to research by Javier Lesaca at George Washington University, ISIS produced 920 media pieces in the last 22 months, using 33 producers. It used social media to distribute its webisodes and documentaries. The media productions encapsulate ISIS’ narrative and messages that radicalize youth. Terrorist groups understand the impact of media content better than governments do. We often get fixated on distribution platforms and number of “clicks” or “hits” rather than on the strength of the material and the appeal of the content to shift attitudes and behaviors.
What terrorist groups depict through media is a polarized world of unrelenting conflict. To challenge that worldview requires high-impact media that shows real alternatives to terrorism — alternatives that truly change lives, particularly the lives of young people. What is needed in the battle to counter extremist ideas is positive cultural programming and empathetic storytelling pushed out via digital platforms and traditional broadcast. Much of this content can be funded by government but need not be produced nor disseminated by government. But it has to be moving, and inspiring to draw large audiences and go viral.
Money, alone, does not guarantee success in curtailing terrorist attacks and countering violent extremism. Resources need to be part of a broad strategy, interagency coordination and solid metrics for evaluating impact. But funding can improve a key tool in the U.S. foreign policy toolbox: public diplomacy. The present level of funding is simply not enough to match the challenge that terrorism poses.
Ideas still matter. Ideas can be discredited or advanced. Extremist messaging can be countered but it requires more than bombs and bullets. If we are serious about countering the negative messages reaching a burgeoning youth population in the Middle East, the West needs to put serious resources behind the effort.
The failure of the international community and the media to tell the positive stories of the Middle East and North Africa region creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of terror. This year should be the year we put our money where our mouths are.
Leon G. Shahabian is president of Layalina Productions, a nonprofit organization, and an award-winning filmmaker. Tara Sonenshine is former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and currently lectures at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.