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Islamic State propaganda and how to counter it

Earlier this month, the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World launched two analysis papers in a panel on the Islamic State (ISIS) propaganda moderated by the project’s director, William McCants. Cole Bunzel discussed his paper, From paper state to caliphate: The ideology of the Islamic State, which draws on private correspondence, speeches, and Islamic theology to outline the development of the Islamic State’s ideology. J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan, authors of The ISIS Twitter census, presented the findings of their research on the demographics of the ISIS support network on Twitter, and how they participate in its highly organized online activities. Anastasia Norton, manager at Monitor 360 and an expert in counterterrorism strategic communications, joined the panel as a discussant.

Islamic State Belief

Cole Bunzel cited the Islamic State’s own sources and ideological material to trace the historical and theological evolution of the group. He described their brand of jihadi Salafism as a combination of Muslim Brotherhood activism with the takfiri elements of Wahhabism, and highlighted the demonization of the Shia as one of the primary and most effective parts of the ISIS narrative. When McCants asked him to elaborate on the specific Islamic traditions being invoked to justify their acts, Bunzel replied: “When it comes to acts of brutality, they will just look at any Islamic jurist over the fourteen centuries of Islam who might have said something favorable about immolation, for example… and so they quote these things.”

“When it comes to acts of brutality, they will just look at any Islamic jurist over the fourteen centuries of Islam who might have said something favorable about immolation, for example… and so they quote these things.”

— Cole Bunzel

Islamic State Behavior

Berger, who recently released a book, ISIS: State of Terror, discussed the propaganda strategies employed by the Islamic State online, particularly on social media. “Media is important to them. Projection is important to them. The projection of an image of strength is critical to the success that they are having… [this] is the reason we see ISIS succeeding in ways that al-Qaida didn’t.”

“Media is important to them. Projection is important to them. The projection of an image of strength is critical to the success that they are having… [this] is the reason we see ISIS succeeding in ways that al-Qaida didn’t.”

— J.M. Berger

According to Berger, Islamic State supporters flock to Twitter over Facebook or YouTube because it is the most visible the least inclined to interfere with the activity of its users. Norton noted the Islamic State’s adeptness at tailoring their messages to a wide variety of motivations, and McCants asked Berger to elaborate on these distinct streams of messaging.  Berger agreed that the lslamic State knows audience matters, and it creates propaganda intended for specific viewers: violent videos attract recruits and intimidate local armies, and videos of markets and nursing homes appease local residents.

Morgan described how the Twitter Census project can trace the path of an online supporter and track their movement within the ISIS network, “What’s really interesting about the types of data we were able to collect from a group that operates so heavily on a social network like Twitter is that we can, in effect, reduce radicalization to a numbers game. We are quantifying behavior in a way that wasn’t possible before…”

“What’s really interesting about the types of data we were able to collect from a group that operates so heavily on a social network like Twitter is that we can, in effect, reduce radicalization to a numbers game. We are quantifying behavior in a way that wasn’t possible before…”

— Jonathon Morgan

Countering the Islamic State

The panelists touched on a number of ways to counter Islamic State propaganda. For Bunzel, the removal of key leaders would significantly hinder the group’s success. Berger spoke to the efficacy of suspending Twitter accounts that promote ISIS propaganda and explained complications with this approach. In addition to free speech issues and the loss of intelligence gathering opportunities, Berger noted, Twitter suspensions may further radicalize ISIS propaganda consumers by pushing them into insular online communities closed off to moderate outside voices. McCants asked Norton to explain how open source data gathering techniques like the Twitter Census methodology can change the way we analyze and counter terrorist propaganda. With these new techniques, Norton said “we now need a way to separate signal from noise,” to distinguish between belief and behavior. She argued that while efforts should aim to counter behavior rather than belief, there may be success in the promotion of counter narratives that religiously discredit the Islamic State.

Author

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Elizabeth Pearce

Senior Project Manager - Foreign Policy and Institutional Initiatives


Watch the full video of the event here.

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