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Four ways to counter ISIS propaganda more effectively

Alberto M. Fernandez

The Islamic State (or ISIS) has recruited an estimated 20,000 fighters since 2011. As I explore in a new Brookings paper, a major reason for this level of recruiting success has been the group’s savvy use of propaganda and social media. Counter-messaging efforts, meanwhile, have been largely ineffective—in part because they are dwarfed by the sheer size of the ISIS communications footprint, but also because they have been too mono-dimensional and static.

How did ISIS propaganda become what it is? What is the nature of its appeal? What is the state of play in anti ISIS messaging efforts, and what steps would a better response include? 

The perfect storm

The roots of the ISIS propaganda machine are deep. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the founder of the group that became ISIS—was, among other things, a showman: of violence and of language. He spoke compellingly of “epic battles” and the Final Hour, alluding to the powerful apocalyptic themes present in Islamic literature.

But if you look at ISIS propaganda in 2011 and 2012, it is different than what it is today. It was more inward looking, more amateurish, and more domestic at that time. It became, over time, more global, adventurous, and creative. 

With the fall of Fallujah in 2014—which occurred at roughly the same time that President Obama called ISIS a junior varsity team—the war in Syria changed. It became the first social media war, the war that attracted western Muslims in an unprecedented number, the first tweeted war. The right cocktail of forces elevated the ISIS media presence from good to great: the Islamic State of Iraq’s encounter with Syria, the global emergence of Twitter, and the more widespread knowledge of English all turbocharged ISIS propaganda. 

Fear, act, believe

What is the appeal of what ISIS does? It is not necessarily about winning hearts and minds, though that is part of it. What ISIS seeks to present is a stark choice about the correct message. For ISIS, the message is about emergency, agency, and authenticity. 

First, it sounds the alarms that an emergency is happening, that Muslims are being slaughtered. The advantage for the Islamic State is that this is at least somewhat true. The best propaganda is obviously always connected with the real world and with the truth. Then this element of emergency is coupled with the element of agency: ISIS tells Muslims in Manchester, Paris, and elsewhere that they have a role to play. In one English-language video, for instance, there is a clear message that these are golden days, concluding: “So ask yourself, either you can be here in these golden times, […] or you can be on the sidelines.” 

And then there is the vital element of authenticity, a trait that this austere, grim, savage organization embodies chillingly well. The fact that it’s violent, ruthless, zealous for the law, and obsessed with utopianism only enhances its authenticity. 

Doing counter-propaganda better

Many different entities—in the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, and the Arab world—have tried and largely failed to combat the ISIS propaganda machine. Even the single most credible voice on jihad—al-Qaida—failed to reign in the Islamic State. So governments and even terrorist groups have not been successful in quelling its advance, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t valuable elements in all these approaches.

Many of the counter-propaganda efforts have been limited in scope and funding, and have lacked clear political goals. Many of them were created to fight al-Qaida, not the Islamic State. It is difficult for risk-averse governments to match the Islamic State’s advantages in volume and originality, as Charlie Winter wrote in a recent paper

Rather than oscillate between triumphalism and despair, we need a constant counter-propaganda effort. I have several recommendations:

  1. We need to view the problem of the Islamic State as a political problem with a media dimension, not the other way around. All too often we think that these are public relations or messaging issues. But they’re related to the real world: there is a real war in Syria and Iraq, there’s real violence, there are real people being killed. Mosul did fall to the Islamic State, it wasn’t imaginary. So we need to realize that when we talk about messaging, it is intrinsically linked to a political reality. We cannot divorce propaganda from the political reality on the ground. 
  2. It takes a network to fight a network. Despite some steps to ramp up the volume of our counter-propaganda efforts, we still lack the volume necessary to be able to compete in this space. Volume has value. And the Islamic State—either itself or with its networks—still has the advantage in numbers, and it’s managed to create an echo chamber that gives its messages a life of their own. 
  3. There is a wealth of credible voices of people who have firsthand knowledge of ISIS violence that have not been fully tapped. In August 2014, for instance, the Islamic State killed almost 1,000 male members of the Sheitaat Tribe, a Sunni-Arab-Muslim Tribe in Syria. We know that there are Sheitaat Tribesmen now in refugee camps—they (along with Iraqis from Anbar province and Syrian refugees) have their own firsthand stories to tell. It would be a good investment for a Western or Middle Eastern government to hire some of those people and empower them to challenge extremists on social media. That’s an easy and inexpensive step. 
  4. On content, there is too much emphasis on the search for the magic bullet. What counter-propagandists really need is multifaceted content similar to the multifaceted content that the Islamic State produces. This could include sarcasm, fact-based approaches, ideological approaches, and others. Governments—especially the U.S. government—aren’t always the best-equipped to engage in ideological struggles; since there is an ideological dimension to the ISIS battle, governments should include the relevant actors in the design and implementation of its counter-propaganda strategy. 

These are some common sense steps, though the larger task of countering the alarmingly effective ISIS propaganda products won’t be easy. While these steps cannot solve the problem—ISIS poses, as I’ve said, essentially a politically challenge—they can at least challenge ISIS and other extremists in their own space.

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