Barely 12 hours had passed since the siege on Paris’ Bataclan theater ended and already the propagandists of the Islamic State had put together audio and textual statements claiming responsibility for the attack, in French, Arabic and English. Within minutes, tens of thousands of people had seen their audacious, gloating claim. Within hours, it would be millions.
In the days since, the group’s propagandists have continued working overtime, producing and popularizing carefully choreographed photo reports showing purported supporters of the group celebrating the “blessed operation of France,” handing out sweets to children in Libya and clapping each other on the back in Iraq. Already, there have been two well-produced videos, juxtaposing excerpts of François Hollande’s speech and interviews with ISIL fighters. In the days to come, there are sure to be more videos from across ISIL’s tens of affiliated “provinces,” more scenes of fighters from across the world grandstanding, making threats, laughing and joking about the Paris raid in which, at the time of writing, 129 people were murdered and hundreds more injured.
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Usually, ISIL propaganda reaches the pages of our newspapers and the screens of our televisions because of its brutality. On this occasion, though, it has caught the eye because of its brazen audacity — how can people celebrate the indiscriminate murder of so many?
ISIL’s messaging is an all too regular fixture in the global media, an inevitable outcome of its unique outreach strategy. It expends a huge amount of effort on broadcasting itself globally, far more so than any other jihadist group. What are the elements that make its propaganda so successful, what are liberal democracies getting wrong in countering it — and what do we need to start getting right?
ISIL drowns out the messaging of its jihadi competition and battlefield adversaries almost totally, circulating nearly 40 separate propaganda “events” each day: photo reports, videos, articles, theological/ideological materials, radio shows — the list goes on.
What’s more, as the months go by, the ISIL propagandists continue to add to their repertoire, whether it is translating their wares into more languages or using new production equipment and post-production tools. The material is routinely high quality — the films well directed and the photos well lit. Videos are promoted with photoshopped posters and they even make music videos for their anashid (jihadist songs sung a capella). All content, no matter where it originates, is uniformly branded — homogeneity is the name of the game. The material is then nimbly disseminated across social media. When the pressure mounts from hackers, governments and social media corporations, they have shown themselves to be adaptable by rapidly swarming onto new platforms.
But what about the message ISIL is sending out? There is a common misconception that ISIL propaganda focuses exclusively on bloodcurdling barbarity: Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi’s sadistic knife executions, or the Hollywoodesque snuff movies showing enemy fighter pilots burned alive in slow motion. This is the material pushed toward Western audiences and local enemies to intimidate (and inspire a certain type of fanatical recruit). When working with other audiences — the people it wants to keep on side such as local Sunnis exhausted with civil war in Iraq or Syria — ISIL will don absolutely contrasting narrative clothes, stressing social services or a strong penal code. Understanding that different things appeal to different people is a crucial requisite for propagandistic success. It is this audience and narrative variation that is the secret to ISIL’s propaganda.
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So if that’s the challenge, what are democracies currently doing about it?
Governments are the most proactive players in the counter-ISIL game. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) of the U.S. State Department is perhaps the most prominent, directly addressing violent extremists online, challenging their claims and ideological agendas on a one-to-one, open-source basis. More recently, government campaigns have been more inventive. Since July 2015, for example, the Sawab Center, a joint UAE-U.S. venture, has produced short, sharp Arabic-language videos in which defectors from ISIL are quizzed and refugees fleeing ISIL interviewed, using first-hand testimony to underline the falseness of ISIL’s propaganda claims.
But government activities are of limited effect. Firstly they made tactical mistakes, most notoriously when the CSCC tried to emphasize the Islamic State’s brutality as a disincentive to joining it (it’s actually a big reason people join). More important than these mistakes, though, is the question of credibility. Extremists simply do not care when a government tells them they are wrong. Even ‘swing voters’ are put off.
Some of the slack has been taken up by ‘think-and-do-tanks’, who survive through funding from governments and the private technological companies such as Google or Facebook that have found themselves unwittingly enabling ISIL on their platforms. Projects have included educational campaigns in schools, or producing videos telling the personal stories of former extremists.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a British think-tank, has also proposed a one-to-one digital outreach scheme in which vulnerable people are directly engaged online. When Facebook spots a potential recruit communicating with Jihadi sites they are messaged by former members of Jihadi groups who try to guide them away from ISIL by sharing their own negative experiences.
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Other initiatives, such as Open Your Eyes and TruthAboutIsis, seek to project the voice of the Muslim majority through brief interviews posted online in which young people variously explain why they believe the Islamic State is not Islamic, or warn their peers of the consequences of joining the group. Initiatives like these can play a valuable role but, given that ISIL videos are routinely viewed hundreds of thousands of times, with just 5,437 followers on Twitter and 11,405 likes on Facebook between them at the time of writing, they alone will not “crush ISIS propaganda.”
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Both the government and think-tank approaches suffer from two key drawbacks. The first is the nature of the messenger — an outside agency which will often be rejected a priori. Governments and think-tanks can hide their presence through covert projects, but the stakes if they are found out are very high. The second is the reactive nature of their messaging: they are always having to counter the latest ISIL trick and, thus, are always left behind.
As liberal democracies move forward against ISIL after the Paris attacks, we need to refocus our efforts and take them out of the 20th- and into a 21st-century paradigm.
First the messenger. The 21st century and the IT revolution have shown the incredible power civic actors now have to launch their own propaganda and communications campaigns. During Ukraine’s EuroMaidan revolution, for example, self-starting activists used the internet to create and propagate motivational videos and pictures, organize legal and medical aid, raise funds, discuss battle tactics, and arrange sleeping quarters and food for hundreds of thousands.
Likewise, in the propaganda battle against ISIL, the most effective actors are self-created civic and community groups from which great things have emerged. The #notinmyname and #illridewithyou campaigns, for example, were valuable efforts to counter the group’s propaganda. “Not in My Name” was a reaction by Muslims to Islamic State atrocities, where they held online snaps distancing themselves from terrorist acts. “I’ll ride with you” was a campaign by non-Muslims wanting to stop Islamophobia during the Sydney café siege of December 2014 where a suspected Muslim terrorist had taken 18 people hostage.
According to Twitter Australia, it was shared 150,000 times in just four hours in the wake of the attack.
Such spontaneous civic initiatives are key to counter-propaganda success in the 21st century. The best thing governments can do is not get in their way and taint activists with their sometimes soiled brands. If governments or multinational institutions such as the U.N. or EU do have roles in this facet of countering ISIL, it is to support academic sociological and data analysis of ISIL’s propaganda trends; organize training for potential activists on how to wage successful campaigns; and, as former NATO official Ben Nimmo suggests, to arrange regular exchanges between activists, journalists and bloggers in sensitive areas, helping create networks of trust and understanding between people in Beirut and London, Tunisia and Paris, and catalyzing a transnational community of campaigners.
The second shift has to be a collective move away from simply reacting to ISIL propaganda to establishing our own narratives. In the 20th century this was relatively straightforward: blasting out messages about how great “democracy” and “freedom” were through a limited number of media outlets.
As ISIL themselves have realized, that doesn’t work any more.
Now, different audiences live in mini-media echo chambers, and the big, meta-narratives about the glories of liberal democracy have lost their luster. Today you have to reach out to each sub-audience, find the unique message that works for each and connect it to a greater strategic narrative about liberal democracy and why it works. This is a daunting but inspiring challenge, and one relevant to propaganda challenges across the world. It will mean a re-examination of the purpose of liberal democracy — instead of broad slogans working out how it truly benefits someone in their own small world, whether in a Paris banlieu, among Putin supporters in Russia, ISIL supporters in Syria or fans of China in Africa. It means testing whether liberal democracy really is the best system out there.
Charlie Winter is a senior research associate at the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative, Georgia State University. Peter Pomerantsev is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute, London, and author of “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.” This piece draws on material from a forthcoming Legatum publication in its Beyond Propaganda series.