IS smart communication strategy: reality or myth?

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Recently, a discussion was launched on Linkedin by Beatrice Verez of Albany, under the title: ISIS and Social Media: Really that Sophisticated?  Here is her comment:

It’s not new. It’s not unique.  Radicalisation on the net; terrorists advertising their needs over the web; networks of extremists in the digital space – these have been de riguer for any self-respecting evil-doer over the last decade or so. However…

I have been arguing with myself for weeks on the same line, wondering whether the success of IS[1]  in its communication is to be ascribed to a professionally pre-planned strategy or it is just the individual adoption of contemporary tactics, following the ‘format’ of other successful campaigns.

I also believe that part of their success is due to a serious failure by those who should oppose it, since they too often involuntary contribute to IS’ credibility by adopting a wrong or inadequate narrative.

Furthermore, fighting an information battle through news media and PR tools of the democratic world is like fighting with a hand tied beyond our back, as our ethics inevitably give an upper hand to those who can freely use propaganda tools.    The Russian success in communication efforts to support their actions in Ukraine is a vivid example of that.

But while the Russians certainly have a pre-planned strategy and a dedicated, monolithic organization to implement it, IS is unlikely to have even remotely comparable resources.  So why are they so successful in achieving at least four main communication goals?

  • To sustain their recruiting campaign
  • To establish themselves as a credible counterpart at global level
  • To solicit economic support
  • To win hearts and minds in the areas they control.

In an effort to compare my views to those expressed by many communication  experts I selected several articles or papers (linked in the text)  that I believe can help better understanding how IS communicates. This should also help identifying what can be done to counter it.

Most believe that the success of IS communication is in the content.   It meets all the requirements to make the news:

  • Timing:  IS created a network of information producers that provides real-time information, often becoming themselves the first source for western news media.
  • Significance: their narrative affects hundreds of millions who are either directly involved in IS actions or just feel scared to become targets of terrorist acts.
  • Proximity: the high number of IS combatants recruited in the western world – and the fear of their return – have brought the IS story at our doorstep.
  • Prominence: having forced world leaders like President Obama to address the IS threat is a strong multiplier of the prominence of IS stories.
  • Human Interest: the IS narrative appeals to emotion to evoke responses such as terror or sadness. The IS media strategy highlights the group’s intention to scare all its enemies, as no one wants to be beheaded. Plus, we are all empathic and sense other people’s emotions, imagining what someone else might be thinking or feeling. In absence of scare, empathy makes the job.

It is also worth nothing  that Internet cannot be controlled and nobody can be blamed for the use made of it, while the western press – because of their internal competition – acts as a multiplier of the IS messages.  Since imposing censorship is not a suitable option, to counter the IS information aggression requires therefore a very sophisticated and coordinated approach.

The following paragraphs mainly elaborate on how IS communicates, in an effort to assess how much of it is pre-planned versus what may just be individual initiative.   My comments are indeed a compilation of various opions I scanned on the net. Here is what I draw from them.

The IS successful efforts to boost recruiting via social media do not appear as a surprise. They are just taking advantage from the latest technologies, which may be rather a necessity than a choice. Use of Social Media is a natural evolution. Even al-Qaeda eventually moved from the unprofessional videotapes with Bin Laden to an advanced network for the production and distribution of jihadist media. The migration of many jihadist organizations to social media reflects a desire to expand their targeted audience one step further.  This was a likely spontaneous evolution, as many affiliates come from the western world and belong to a generation addicted to Social Media. Actually, what makes IS different is the scope of their engagement online, which is unprecedented.

While the information flow generated by IS is distributed by a spontaneous networks of sympathizers, there have been initiatives that may reflect the existence of a core group managing the system. Like the development of an app for Android mobile devices called ‘The Dawn of Glad Tidings’, providing users access to the latest news about IS.  In return, the application gives IS the option to send its tweets periodically from the accounts of everyone who has signed up for it.  A very simple way to exponentially increase the scope of the communication.

Another indicator of the existence of a central PR brain is that IS contents are systematically shaped according to the target they are designed to reach.   An article by Alessandro Bonzio  provides evidence of this.  On the same vein, it is difficult to believe that certain specific propaganda actions are the spontaneous initiative of a single person or of a single affiliated organization. Examples can be found in a post by Ali Hashem.

The branding adopted by IS also may suggest that someone conceived the ‘look’ to be used to impose the IS brand.   However, there isn’t much new in the ‘black’ theme they adopted. I found interesting a parallel drawn by Angela Haggerty with the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis.

Unlike other jihadist groups, IS gives little consideration to the way it is perceived by the general public (see article by Faisal Irshaid) .

Nobody knows who might have inspired IS from the online world but it seems likely that their digital strategists – assuming they exist-  have looked at successful online campaigns, commercial and otherwise, which have appealed to other young, ‘Western’ audiences. (see article by Chris Rose).

The use of organized hashtag campaigns may also imply an orchestrated effort to focus-group messaging and branding concepts, while projecting strength and promoting engagement online.   (more by J. M. Berger).

IS is also exploiting a serious unbalance in the regional information capabilities, as Middle Eastern governments are still in the early stages of realizing the full potential of social media.  This makes it easy to IS to run campaigns aimed at winning hearts and minds (read Aya Batrawy).

This is coupled with the objective difficulty in reporting the news from the IS dominated areas or even from regional states, where journalists are forced to take sides in the conflict. They may simply risk losing their lives if they don’t.  In that context, IS is printing an English-language , glossy, professional-looking magazine, Dabiq.  It is used as a mobilisation tool calling on lawyers, doctors and engineers from Muslim communities all over the world to come and join the rebuilding of the IS-proclaimed caliphate.  (more by  Mathias Findalen Bickersteth).

 In no definition of ‘state’ does the current regime qualify for the title, yet we dutifully call them the ‘Islamic State,’ because that is what they have decided to call themselves.

I have so far discussed how IS communicates. There is however a main piece missing, which is the cornerstone of their effectiveness: the IS narrative. Failing to understand it is also the main reason why counter information efforts have mainly failed.   The quite long but very interesting paper by Dina Al Raffie   provides ample explanation of why the foreign policies of the US and EU have so far pursued strategies of appeasement and compromise that have only perpetuated the credibility of Salafi Jihadist claims. The result has been the radicalization of Muslims and non-Muslims alike as well as the steady proliferation of extremist messages and ideas in society. Any counter-narrative – Dina says – should thus be one that seeks to protect and promote individual liberties of human beings as opposed to being one that advances compromise; which is only damaging to the long-lasting peace and prosperity of democratic societies.

In providing a counter-narrative, the Western world should do more in the way of understanding the elements that Islamist and Jihadist master narratives share. They should also be wary of inadvertently advancing the cause of such groups.

Lieutenant Colonel Jason Logue  touched this problem with his fingers.  He notes that the IS information effort is not solely focused on dissemination of propaganda material, but on active engagement on a global scale. This decentralized and distributed approach, allows those seeking to understand and then engage in the ‘war of ideas’ to build a relatively clear picture of the narrative arcs, communication approach, tone, and style being employed across a complex information environment. Hence, the central IS communication brain is not engaged in controlling a communication structure but rather sets the tone for individual initiatives.

To counter the IS narrative LtCol. Logue suggests first to avoid adopting the language, tone, and style of those who seek to draw more young fighters to their murderous cause.  By adopting their ‘language’ we give them a credibility they do not deserve.

We often refer to IS members as Jihadists; a name they view as a badge of honor.

We accuse IS of bringing back the Middle east to the Middle Ages, which is exactly what they are proud of, as the Middle Ages was the absolute high point of the Islamic faith.

There are just examples of a lack of cultural awareness behind most of the information efforts to counter IS’ propaganda. In terms of language, we should instead be turning language back against the organization.

And we should stop acting in response to IS’ moves and take the initiative, making sure that our narrative degrades rather than reinforces support for IS.

I am sure that individual states are moving this direction, while there is no sign of a coordinated effort. The main problem is to counter propaganda without using similar tools. Judson Berger noted  hat  the US  Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, only late last year launched a “small pilot English Language Initiative” to counter extremists trying to recruit in the “English-speaking world.”  An English-language YouTube channel was launched this past June, producing videos in-house.

“Air strikes won’t disrupt Islamic State’s real safe haven: social media” is the headline of an article by Rita Katz. She recalls how IS brought online jihadism out of the shadows, using social media — especially Twitter – to issue rapid updates on its successes to a theoretically unlimited audience.  The US State Department initiative to counter IS recruiting by engaging in childish online discussions with jihadists was defined as a ‘silly game’.

When the US Department of Defence announced its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program, the news media reaction was not helpful. The program was immediately stamped as a tool to sniff out social media propaganda campaigns and spit some counter-spin right back at it.  Not a booster for its credibility.

There is therefore no simple solution to fight IS propaganda without using propaganda and through ethically correct western media. Still, a better understanding of how IS operates, a deep cultural understanding of their narrative and an accurate target analysis should allow building a similar distributed model. With the advantage of millions of potential supporters who are likely to be willing to contribute. Provided that they do not sense being used as instruments for propaganda.

The key is therefore in the narrative. We heard many times what the fight against IS is NOT: a fight against Islam.  We rather need to hear more what it is.  In his comment to the LinkedIn discussion I quoted at the beginning,   G. Harris, a Strat Comms Producer/Director and Writer, stated:

“The failure to counter that [IS] narrative reflects a broader failure than mere institutional sluggishness: to a degree I think it reflects a crisis of confidence in our own values. They know what they stand for and what they want, and we need to articulate what modern, secular society stands for and what ‘we’ want. In a battle of ideas, you cannot simply decry one set of ideas without strongly advancing your own. Today, we cannot complacently believe that the value of democracy, tolerance, civil society etc etc is self-evident. We need to explain and champion our values as well as condemning those we oppose.”

In conclusion, I have not answered my own question about whether Islamic State is really applying a professionally planned and managed  communication strategy.  There is no evidence that a structured, centralized PR entity overlooked the IS approach to communications. However, the proven existence of a central PR brain would be good news. As it would constitute vulnerability.   And not only to air targeting. It would indeed be much easier to counter a centralized effort rather that a myriad of information producers scattered around the world.

[1] I intentionally use only the abbreviation IS, as the full text – Islamic State, or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is by itself an endorsement of their status as a legitimate ‘state’

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About fveltri

Former NATO and military spokesperson, currently Public Affairs consultant and President, ComIPI (www.comipi.it)
This entry was posted in propaganda, public affairs, public information, social media and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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