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Thursday, March 17th 2016
“As a direct result of coalition efforts, especially those of the United States government, counter-Islamic State information operations are more prolific now than ever before, the quantity of counterpropaganda is snowballing, and social-media giants like Twitter are being more aggressive in their efforts to hobble ISIS propagandists,” reported Charlie Winter and Jordan Bach-Lombardo in a February 13, 2016, article, “Why ISIS Propaganda Works,” in The Atlantic. “. . . stopping it,” however, “requires that governments get out of the way.” The two proposed “a new communications architecture . . . based on three pillars: global strategic direction, local delivery, and a broader, more accurate understanding of how and why the Islamic State appeals.”
- As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum.
- . . . the strategic communications war—where hearts and minds are won and lost—is just as important in the long-term as any military campaign, if not more so.
- As a direct result of coalition efforts, especially those of the United States government, counter-Islamic State information operations are more prolific now than ever before, thequantity of counterpropaganda is snowballing, and social-media giants like Twitter are being more aggressive in their efforts to hobble ISIS propagandists.
- In January, the State Department restructured its own counterpropaganda apparatus, creating a “Global Engagement Center” to “more effectively coordinate, integrate and synchronize messaging to foreign audiences that undermines the disinformation espoused by violent extremist groups, including ISIL and al-Qaeda.”
- However, even in this new guise—which, while it marks an important push in the right direction, risks being too centralized within national governments at the same time that it lacks the requisite level of coordination among different countries—the coalition’s information operations are facing an almost insurmountable challenge.
- Such a state of affairs is untenable. To ameliorate it, a new communications architecture is required, based on three pillars: global strategic direction, local delivery, and a broader, more accurate understanding of how and why the Islamic State appeals.
- While the international media tends to obsess over the Islamic State’s ultraviolence, the group’s propaganda is incredibly varied.
The Current State of Play
- For the coalition to have lasting communications impact against this formidable enemy, it requires a similarly nuanced—and expansive—understanding of message delivery and audience segmentation. Twitter suspensions are not nearly enough.
- As it stands, the coalition’s counter-messaging is not structured to attack the Islamic State’s entire narrative, but instead looks at and attacks specific elements of its messages individually.
- This structural weakness is compounded by a lack of credible voices and a surplus of risk-averseness, in large part because these efforts have, so far at least, been both led and delivered by a handful of Western governments. The resulting, overly bureaucratic approach persistently gets in the way of flexibility and dynamism, both of which are required for success.
- Government-directed initiatives are fighting an unwinnable battle. They are too centralized, too rigorously managed, and too reactive.
- It’s an uncomfortable truth that, no matter how well-intentioned they are, governments’ ideational responses to jihadism have been marked by memorable slip-ups and controversies. The media is always quick to report on things done wrong, and tends to steer clear of assessing successes.
- As such, no matter how much rebranding and restructuring takes place, efforts like the U.S.’s “Shared Values” campaign (an early-2000s set of commercials aiming to show Muslims living happy lives in the U.S., which was mocked as the “Happy Muslim” campaign); the ultraviolent approach to counterpropaganda embodied in a State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign (which, in purporting to show “some truths about terrorism,” disseminated gory videos among other things); and government officials swapping insults with jihadists on Twitter tend to be the most memorable, defining points for U.S. forays into counter-jihadist public diplomacy.
- And, while it’s true that for every mistake there is a success story, even those are but drops in the information ocean. Indeed, even when supplemented by the efforts of the newly formed £10 million UK-based Coalition Communications Cell—not to mention other strategic-communications centers proliferating globally, from Nigeria to Malaysia—overtly government-directed initiatives are fighting an unwinnable battle. They are too centralized, too rigorously managed, and too reactive. The amount of their activity is structurally bound to be insufficient, and its content bound to lack credibility among the most at-risk target audiences.
- . . . Rashad Hussain, former coordinator of the U.S. Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, noted that Islamic State recruits and sympathizers are “almost always influenced by a figure in their community […] who uses grievance and ideology to reel them in.” Such recognition is all well and good, but there is a big difference between not missing a problem and being able to take effective action to mitigate it.
A New Approach
- What needs to happen is, in conceptual terms, simple. Instead of governments, the burden for reaching potential Islamic State supporters must rest entirely on the shoulders of local, non-government actors. They can be Muslim or non-Muslim, individuals or institutions, community leaders or cultural organizations.
- What matters most is that they are trusted as enemies of the Islamic State and hold preexisting and offline relationships with—and are respected by—those at risk of radicalization, the communities around those at risk of radicalization, and the general audience being targeted by the Islamic State’s propagandists. It is crucial that they are not perceived as being under the thumb of the coalition’s Western leadership.
- To achieve this separation, governments should provide funding, logistical support, and training in communications best practices, whether to groups already doing counter-radicalization work or to those wishing to start from scratch. Since all this must contribute toward the shared goal of undermining the Islamic State’s brand, it will only work if governments never publicly endorse these actors or include their communications on official channels, unless specifically requested otherwise.
- With governmental support and the coalition’s core messaging priorities in hand, local actors will be able to benefit from a globally coordinated campaign that will, in theory, amplify the anti-Islamic State message more widely, in turn creating a better condition for success in each local context.
- . . . using the right channel to broadcast to each audience increases a message’s impact.
- Local actors are incomparably better-placed to identify the best channel for communicating than distant governments.
- Governments still have an integral role to play in the communications battle with the Islamic State. But they must shift their primary information activities away from direct communications, to flexibly supporting and trusting local actors to deliver messages on their behalf—a model reminiscent of that currently employed by the Islamic State.
- Local actors are incomparably better-placed to identify the best channel for communicating than distant governments, but they need to be given the freedom to do so. This requires a large dose of autonomy. If, for example, a local actor decides that a poem is the best way to reach his or her target audience, then so be it. If they want to deliver the same idea through an animation, a conversation over coffee, a tweet, or a pamphlet, that is okay, too. Likewise, if the message itself needs to be tailored to be effective, that is acceptable.
- If, to get around the “Islamic-State-is-a-Western-conspiracy” trope that is so widely accepted in the Middle East, the anti-Islamic State message is dressed up in a way that does not necessarily cater to Western fancies, then that must be accepted as a necessary evil. For example, a Friday sermon criticizing the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam would need to be considered acceptable, even if it contained a condemnation of Israel’s settlements. A closely monitored “anything goes” approach is the coalition’s only chance of success.
- If that’s the theory, what does the structure look like in practice? First off, it would need to operate on three tiers: coalition, national, and local.
- Without revising the communications campaign’s underlying principles and implementing a wider, more holistic approach, the coalition will never be able to meaningfully undermine with the Islamic State’s outreach in the long term.