10 November, one year after ‘Sputnik’ was launched

The Sputnik was the first artificial Earth satellite, launched on 4 October 1957.  Shortly after its launch, the New York Times explained that the literal translation of “sputnik” is “something that is traveling with a traveler.” Additionally, “the traveler is the earth, traveling through space, and the companion ‘traveling with’ it is the satellite.”

sputnik[1]

If you search on Google for the word ‘sputnik’ you get about 23,600,000 results. But if you add ‘satellite’ to the search, results are just 536,000. This means that there are currently over 23 million pages on the web talking about a different Sputnik: the Russian news service that was named after it.  This time the traveler is information and the companion travelling with it is propaganda.

Sputnik, a major Russian media brand with modern multimedia centers in dozens of countries, was launched on 10 November 2014.  It replaced RIA Novosti, the country’s major news agency, and radio station Voice of Russia, creating in their place a new media conglomerate to be known as Rossiya Segodnya.

Russia needs to have more propaganda, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday, in comments on the dissolution of RIA Novosti, the country’s major state-owned news agency.  [MOSCOW, December 19, 2014 (RIA Novosti)]

Sputnik-News1-620x330[1]

This was the latest major evolution in Russia’s efforts to re-model information tools and channels to reach abroad.  The appearance and content of Sputnik clearly reflect a well conceived – as quite effective – strategy to achieve several purposes [1] :

  • to devalue the notions of democratic transparency and accountability,
  • to undermine confidence in objective reporting, 
  • to litter the news with half-truths and quarter truths,
  • to create an alternate reality for Russian minorities in Eastern Europe that discredits democracy and could incite violence

Sputnik and the Russian TV Channel RT do this mainly by capitalizing on Western media principles, such as leaving value judgments out of reporting, to spread disinformation and erode trust in the media.

Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute said[2] citizens in the Baltic countries, for example, have become cynical about all news sources, whether Russian or Western. But they tend to prefer the entertainment value and sensationalism on offer from the Kremlin.

According to its own homepage, Sputnik’s broadcasting is entirely geared toward foreign audiences.  It produces multimedia content and broadcasts in: Russian, Abkhaz, Azerbaijani, Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Crimean Tatar, Dari, English, Estonian, French, Finnish, German, Georgian, Hindi, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Latvian, Moldavian, Polish, Portuguese, Pashto, Spanish, Serbian, Turkish, Tajik, Uzbek, Ukrainian, Japanese.

Sputnik news feeds in English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese are available around the clock. Regional editorial offices in Washington, Cairo, Beijing and Montevideo work 24/7 to provide a non-stop newscast.

The appeal of Sputnik is built around creating a perception of credibility,  a contradiction in terms for a propaganda tool. Still, they smartly carry a number of factual reports, in pure western style, which create a curtain behind which they insert the appropriate messages, and fake news, when needed.    
sputnik1Catherine Putz recently posted a comment on a Sputnik article titled “Washington’s Pivot to Central Asia Aimed at Damaging Russian Interests”  as “a perfect example of how Moscow’s pet publications twist reality into a simplified narrative that plays into regional fears…But as attractive as the messaging is, and though it contains some tethers to reality, Sputnik’s narrative draws conclusions that simply aren’t supported by facts.”

Probably the best tactic used by Sputnik to build its reputation is to echo western media when it is convenient to do so.  What better that a negative story in the New York Times?

sputnik

Quoting the Washington-based Brookings Institution, the article states that the Russian Air Force in Syria left many Western military experts surprised, as they didn’t expect that Russia had the capacity to carry out military operations with such efficiency. However, nowhere in the post you can find a link to the original story…

In other cases original stories are just linked, so as to boost credibility as a news service using worldwide sources:

An Egyptian military helicopter flies over debris from a Russian airliner which crashed at the Hassana area in Arish city, north Egypt, November 1, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

An Egyptian military helicopter flies over debris from a Russian airliner which crashed at the Hassana area in Arish city, north Egypt, November 1, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Bomb by Islamic State likely caused Russian plane crash: security sources https://t.co/dX35avbeJa https://t.co/h8jX2emVvh

Posted by SputnikNews on Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Currently, the Sputnik international page on Facebook has more than 600000 likes, Sputnik in Arabic (one the several accounts) has over 1340000 followers, the same page in German has nearly 114,000 followers.

SPUTNIK2

Of course the above statistics must be interpreted taking into consideration the different popularity of Facebook in each geographical area:

FB2015Q1pie[1]

Without pretending any scientific accuracy, it is anyway evident how effective Sputnik’s penetration has been in the Arabic world.  Unless an armada of robots is creating over a million accounts…  It is to be seen if this number changes after the Russian ambiguous engagement against ISIS.

All the Sputnik posts are built with very effective search engine optimization. Which means that if you search for news on a topical subject there are many probabilities that the first results of your search will bring you to a Sputnik page.  And if you do not know what is behind it, you are fished.

Many studies indicate that to try to debunk one by one disinformation stories is almost a waste of time.  Particularly with reference to viewers who pretend to look for ‘alternative’ sources of information. The same are those who are more easily trapped within disinformation bubbles.  Responding to every lie or phony situation is counterproductive, because it is reactive and you are always behind the curve.  Still, the record must be corrected and fact-checking remains a required approach to counter propaganda.

Experts believe that instead of just playing defense, Western information should counter-attack and fill the information gap left within domestic Russian speaking audiences. Reality-based, locally relevant, engaging programming is the one type of content Kremlin media, despite its many successes, does not produce. Both Aron [1] and Pomerantsev [2] urged the U.S. government and civil society groups to provide more support to news sources such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that can counter Russian propaganda with local and narrative-based stories. The counter-propaganda efforts will require a long-term commitment, they said.

Meanwhile, I ‘liked’  the Sputnik page, just to stay abreast of the artificial reality they want me to perceive. So please take me away from the above statistics.

[1] from testimony by Leon Aron, US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, 3 Nov. 2015

[2] from testimony by Mr. Peter Pomerantsev before US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, 4 Nov. 2015

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Why empathy matters

This summer the first ever Empathy Museum was inaugurated in London. So what?aquacogs[1]

In the business of communication empathy was considered as a feeling to be expressed in crisis communication to show that we ‘care’ and make it easier for our message to be credible within audiences that are suffering the consequences of the crisis itself.  Indeed, many people confuse empathy with sympathy, while empathy is much more.

Definitely empathy was not a centre of gravity of mass communication until the advent of Social Media, which was just made possible by communication technology and did not create a new artificial need.  On the contrary, Social Media met a basic, natural need or quality of human beings: to be empathetic.

The English word Empathy is derived from the ancient Greek word ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), “physical affection, passion, partiality.”   It therefore encompasses a broad range of emotional states, including caring for other people and having a desire to help them, and the ability to feel and share another person’s emotions. This is just part of our instinct, as it is for many other animals. We strongly feel empathy for our relatives and friends, but also for unknown people.  Sometimes even for our enemies.

With digital communications, friends and family are never far away and the notion of ‘friendship’ was enlarged, to include unknown or little known people who just share our interests, or our values. Many believe that the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room.

In mass communications, however, this negative effect is not relevant. Social Media has made us addicted to a large daily dose of empathy and we start missing this also in other forms of communication.http://www.shmula.com/lean-manager-demonstrate-empathy/10338/

One way communication is no longer credible and no dialogue can be established with our audience without using empathy as our baseline, as the key to establish rapport and build trustworthy communication. And empathy is better convened or triggered using visual communication, no matter what tool or channel we are using to communicate. This change is very evident in all forms of contemporary communication.

We  may actually need to change our approach from one of ‘introspection’ to ‘outrospection’, as this video suggests:

The birth of a museum devoted to this aspect of human relationships is therefore important to the world of communication.  It is not a place where to observe testimonies of empathic, it is instead a place where to practice and learn empathy.

Empathy is a more popular concept today than at any time in the last century. It’s on the lips of everyone from Barack Obama to the Dalai Lama, from business gurus to happiness experts. Neuroscience research reveals that 98% of people have the ability to empathise – but few of us reach our full empathic potential.

The museum’s first initiative was, in September,  ‘A Mile in My Shoes’, an interactive shoe-shop where visitors were invited to literally walk a mile in the shoes of a stranger while listening to their story.  And if we learn how to ‘walk in the shoes’ of our audiences we will certainly be able to effectively communicate with them.

 

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Quarterly Digest of PA News is on line

The latest issue of the COMIPI  digest of news of interest to the Public Affairs Community is on line.  It features:

  • Volkswagen and failing comms
  • Volkswagen’s intent to deceive
  • NATO signs five-year comms services agreement
  • Poisoned Public Opinion in Russia
  • The limits of photojournalism                  
  • How to manage negative SM comments (infographic)  
  • The Use of Digitalisation: Changing The Relationship Between Public Relations And Journalism
  • Where fake news is born
  • Measuring effects of PR activities
  • Altered Images Show Photojournalism at Its Worst 

digest

This newsletter is aimed at providing Public Affairs practitioners with a short selection of recently posted  stories, papers, etc. which may be useful to remain abreast of new trends or to stimulate a debate.  Sources are linked and any copyright remains with the authors.

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About idiots and churnalism

A recent quote by the most known Italian contemporary writer, Umberto Eco, captured significant attention on the web:

umberto-eco[1]“Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.” 

Among the many comments I liked more what Dr Jim West  wrote on his blog:

 “… the idiots have the right to speak but they should have no expectation that anyone with sense will listen to them much less take them seriously.  The idiots have as much right to be heard as CNN and the Huffington Post and Fox News and NBC and ABC and CBS and the Discovery Channel and the History Channel.  But like those outlets of infotainment, they have no right to be taken seriously when they speak about matters like theology or history or exegesis or archaeology.

Indeed, the truth is, only idiots heed idiots.  So let them.  Those who wish to know better will seek to know better and those who are satisfied with rank ignorance, stupidity, and misinformation will never care for the truth any more than a person who watches the Naked Archaeologist really cares about the facts.  Their ignorance is invincible.  They should be left to it.  To rot in the swampy stew of their own putrid mindlessness.”

It is not the first time Eco refers to idiots. In his Foucault’s Pendulum,  he identified four categories of people:

“There are four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics… If you take a good look, everybody fits into one of these categories. Each of us is sometimes a cretin, a fool, a moron, or a lunatic. A normal person is just a reasonable mix of these components, these four ideal types.”

If  ordinary people populate social media, it should be no surprise if a good lot of them fell in the above categories.  Still, it may be worth looking at a more scientific assessment, to validate Eco’s skepticism.

A study by Teresa Correa *, Amber Willard Hinsley, Homero Gil de Zúñiga published a few years ago tried to assess “Who interacts on the Web?: The intersection of users’ personality and social media use.”

Here is the abstract of their paper:

 In the increasingly user-generated Web, users’ personality traits may be crucial factors leading them to engage in this participatory media. The literature suggests factors such as extraversion, emotional stability and openness to experience are related to uses of social applications on the Internet.

Using a national sample of US adults, this study investigated the relationship between these three dimensions of the BigFive[1] model and social media use (defined as use of social networking sites and instant messages). It also examined whether gender and age played a role in that dynamic.

Results revealed that while extraversion and openness to experiences were positively related to social media use, emotional stability was a negative predictor, controlling for socio-demographics and life satisfaction.

extrovert_stamp_tshirt-ra0cb18426e2443e29142e38b686435e4_wio57_324[1]These findings differed by gender and age. While extraverted men and women were both likely to be more frequent users of social media tools, only the men with greater degrees of emotional instability were more regular The relationship between extraversion and social media use was particularly important among the young adult cohort. Conversely, being open to new experiences emerged as an important personality predictor of social media use for the more mature segment of the sample.

Trying to translate scientific language into approximate plain language, it appears that social media frequent users are not necessarily idiots (as per Eco’s definition) but are more likely to be extroverts who are open to new experiences but also people with greater degrees of emotional instability.

While earlier studies hypothesized that the anonymity of the Internet attracted people who were less comfortable with themselves and who otherwise had trouble making connections with others,  more recent studies maintain that this negative connotation applies more to group-like conversations between individuals who are largely unknown to each other, while extroverts prevail in chats among people who know each other.

Gender presented another difference among personality traits of SM users. While extraverted men and women were both likely to be more frequent users of social media tools, only the men with greater degrees of emotional instability were more regular users. No significant relationship existed between women and emotional stability. This may illustrate the differences in the ways men and women communicate – women place a greater emphasis on forging connections with others and building a sense of community.

As per Facebook, another study by Tracii Ryan and Sophia Xenos revealed that users tend to be more extroverted and narcissistic, but less conscientious and socially lonely, than nonusers. Furthermore, frequency of Facebook use and preferences for specific features were also shown to vary as a result of certain characteristics, such as neuroticism, loneliness, shyness and narcissism.

As a Facebook user I am afraid to position myself in the above categories…

statsfacebookBut I feel better if I look at the statistics about Facebook demography. It appears that a large majority comprises young people who are college graduate and earn quite a lot.  Difficult to reconcile this with the stereotype of a village idiot.

All of this not to enter into a sociology debate, but just to confirm that Eco is wrong in generalizing. Yes, there are idiots contributing to Social Media, and they may represent  a larger share – compared to the overall population – when it comes to places where they can remain anonymous.  Indeed an ordinary village idiot has no problem in showing his face.

Still, Eco’s strong statement was a good reminder of the need to watch for idiots while we browse internet pages.

A clear example was an experiment made by Ahmad al-Mahmoud, an Iraqi who lives in London and runs a Twitter account called @IraqSurveys. The account usually collates serious news about what’s happening in the country, and has nearly 14,000 followers. As reported in a story by the BBC, one day he “got bored”, and he tweeted that Islamic State had withdrawn from a non existing place called Shichwa. He even shared Photoshopped pictures of news outlets which appeared to show the battle being discussed. People started adding to it, making maps like Sim City,” he told BBC Trending. Some posted fake news about the fight, and one user even made a map of the battlefield. _83598042_iraqsurvey2[1] In 48 hours of running the gag, pro-government Iraqis and militia fans started tweeting the news that ISIS was escaping a pitched battle and that the Hashd were victorious and on the move.  Realising that the joke was getting out of hand, Mahmoud called a halt to the prank after two days.  If you want to have fun search on Twitter for the hashtag #Shichwa.

Of note, Shichwa is a kind of leather pouch used by Iraqis to churn milk into butter. Mr Mahmoud said the allusion to “churnalism” – the term for recycling inadequately checked news – was a “happy coincidence”.

I was surprised not to find any echo of this faked battle in western reporting, until the fake was revealed.  It was probably only because all the related traffic was in Arabic.  But the lesson is still clear. Trolls, idiots and disinformation professionals are always at work and we all need to find ways to double check before echoing what we read.

[1] The BigFive framework is a model of personality that contains five factors representing personality traits at a broad level: extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness (Ehrenberg et al., 2008; John & Srivastava, 1999).

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Russian Propaganda Builds on Western Freedom

A recent story posted by the international TV network RT constitutes a clear example of the strategic approach taken by Russian propaganda: to take as much advantage as possible from the constraints democracy imposes on freedom of information.  To include the internal criticism expressed by western watchdogs protecting freedom of information.

RT (formerly named “Russia Today”) is a Russian state-funded cable and satellite television channel directed to audiences outside of the Russian Federation.  Its is therefore a major tool to influence the global audience.

In their story, titled: Mass surveillance breeds self-censorship in democracies  they highlight passages from an International Survey titled Global Chilling, The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers, conducted by PEN American Center, which is the largest branch of PEN International, the world’s leading literary and human rights organization.

global chilling

RT highlights that the study found that an increasing number of writers in democratic countries are censoring themselves due to fears about government surveillance.

“Writers are concerned that expressing certain views even privately or researching certain topics may lead to negative consequences”

This is certainly true, as censorship is taking new shapes and pressure by the fear of surveillance is definitely having an impact.

What RT is failing to report is that the survey, while highlighting the problems posed by surveillance in the free countries, clearly shows that the situation is much worse in ‘partially’ or ‘not free’ countries.   The survey groups countries according to the status defined by Freedom House in their Freedom of the World report.  No surprise that Russia is listed among the ‘not free’ countries…

russia

While self-censorship is definitely a major problem in Russia, it just complements major efforts to impose active censorship.  Another report on this matter was published very recently by the Columbia Journalism Review: 21st-century censorship. Again, this report makes no discount to any nation, no matter their political alignment.  But we doubt RT will ever publish the passage related to Russia’s war on the press:

CJRIn Russia, President Vladimir Putin is remaking the media landscape in the government’s image. In 2014, multiple media outlets were blocked, shuttered, or saw their editorial line change overnight in response to government pressure. While launching its own media operations, the government approved legislation limiting foreign investment in Russian media. The measure took aim at publications like Vedomosti, a daily newspaper respected for its standards and independence and owned by three foreign media groups: Dow Jones, the Financial Times Group and Finland’s Sanoma.

An article by  posted on 15 December further elaborates on this concept. The story, titled RUSSIA’S WAR ON INFORMATION makes also reference to RT:

PutinRussia’s war on information does not end at Russia’s borders. Russia Today—now simply called RT—is radically expanding operations into 45 languages with a 40 percent increase in funding.  RT’s marketing line is “Question More.”  But the aim isn’t dialogue and debate, it’s to white wash the actions of Putin as former RT anchor Liz Wahl bravely reported as she resigned on air.  Russia also has launched Sputnik – not the satellite, but a global news agency operating in 34 languages, with a robust online presence and the purported aim of providing “an alternative viewpoint on world events.”

To achieve these aims, RT is adopting the style and the language of the free press. It also usually avoids to make its propaganda aims clearly visible. Actually, many of its reports are quite factual and may compete with those posted by major western news media organizations.   As a result, stories appearing in RT are often referred to by western journalists and in social media channels.  A cheap way to recruit the western information world to serve their purposes.

The RT account on Twitter has today 841,000 followers. The RT page on Facebook has 2,327,348 likes.  One can assume that many of them know what RT is about and are able to assess the bias. Nevertheless, yesterday’s RT tweet about ‘Mass surveillance’ was re-tweeted  more than 70 times, as of now. Scrolling the list of those who re-tweeted it, it is easy to assess that it includes potential RT supporters, and also people who have no real interest in the story, But it also includes western people that are difficult to ascribe to any category. In turn, they may have reached many more, with a domino effect.

One more thing is missing in the RT report:  the survey by PEN is by itself a demonstration that in the free world there are instruments to contain and fight any abuse made by governments towards freedom of information. When shall we see a similar report published in Russia by a Russian independent study center like PEN?

Meanwhile, in addition to taking active measures to counter Russian propaganda, it is better to spread the word about what RT is about.

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Quarterly Digest of News of Interest to the PA Community

The latest issue of the ComIPI quarterly review is available online:

digest

It features:

  • Why ISIS coverage sounds familiar
  • Analysis of Russia’s information campaign against Ukraine
  • How Russia Is Revolutionizing Information Warfare

Social Media tips:

  • How to Survive a Scandal
  • If You’re Reading This, You’re Part Of The Connected Class
  • 5 Tips to Avoid Spamming Your Target Audiences
  • Can You Say “I’m Not Here To Talk About That Topic?”
  • 6 Ways to Improve Twitter Engagement With Psychology Principles
  • Why did FBI urge US troops to scrub social media accounts?
  • Clueless about social media? Here are 17 clues for getting started Continue reading
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IS smart communication strategy: reality or myth?

Clip_3

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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