The ascent of the Islamic State (ISIS) has confirmed what al-Qaeda and the Taliban already demonstrated a decade ago: strategic communications, especially counter-propaganda efforts, continue to be among the key weaknesses of Western counter-terrorism strategies. The ISIS propaganda machine has eclipsed its predecessors and peers in its reach, resonance, and relevance to local and transnational audiences. The pull of ISIS propaganda is tragically reflected in the growing number of foreign fighters that it is able to attract: U.S. security organizations estimate that about 30,000 citizens from approximately 90 countries have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq since 2011.
Experts tend to agree that a major reason for this level of recruiting has been the group’s sophisticated social media-born propaganda campaign, which has expanded its scope from the more esoteric conflict in Syria and Iraq to a worldwide appeal. It is difficult to assess the tangible impact that the audiovisual strategy of ISIS on social media has in the group’s recruitment capacity. At the same time, there are significant grounds to speculate that ISIS’ communication through social networks is connected with the radicalization process of a terrorist.
Data gathered by the Soufan Group. Graph created by the author.
In discourse about countering terrorism, the term “radicalization” is used extensively but remains without an unequivocal definition. Radicalization -and more specifically, involvement in terrorism- might be best regarded as a set of diverse processes that are personal and unique to each individual. Indeed, people are often inspired by radical content on social media and some sort of personal interaction with a relative, friend, neighbor, religious leader or someone communicating with them one-on-one online.
The terrorists behind the ISIS propaganda machine understand this process very well. In the last two years the group has mastered a model of individualized, tailored recruitment, as demonstrated in the segmentation of the group’s messages on social media, expertly produced to resonate with their specific targeted audience. However the United States’ counter-propaganda efforts against ISIS recruiting strategy do not seem to consistently involve a widespread effort to exploit this kind of individualized outreach. And they should.
Indeed social media research has shown that messages from friends and peers are more persuasive than general advertising. Other bodies of research also show that youth at risk of falling into many kinds of trouble, from drugs to gangs, often benefit from even small interventions by parents, mentors, or peers. However, most of the government response to ISIS’ recruiting strategy on social media is not interactive. Too often it is a one-way broadcast, not a dialogue. In a lot of cases, what is missing is a widespread effort to establish effective one-on-one contact online with the people who are absorbing content from ISIS and are at risk of becoming radicalized.
The process of radicalization and its influencing factors. Inspired by Shaarik H. Zafar’s dynamics of radicalization. Visual created by the author.
A few crucial considerations about audiences and messengers should be made here. First of all, the audience to target should be carefully selected among those people who are considered at risk of radicalization, but have not yet been swayed. It is pointless to engage in an online battle with ISIS supporters who have already been persuaded into extremism. This was arguably one of the biggest mistakes committed by the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication (CSCC) in its embarrassing campaign on Twitter “Think Again, Turn Away”, where it was directly addressing prominent jihadist accounts. The conversations that resulted from this campaign were not only counterproductive, but also provided a prominent stage on which radical jihadists could launch their messages.
The second point that needs to be stressed is that counter-propaganda messages need to come from credible voices. Much has already been written about this and there is a widespread understanding that messaging undermining ISIS needs to originate from alternative voices that appear independent from Western governments. However, in the context of voices inside social media, there are is a key area that ISIS has been exploiting and that the US has not yet exploited to its full potential: personal testimonials. Indeed a significant percentage of ISIS propaganda audiovisual consists of personal testimonials of Western foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State’s cause. Take the example of the Australian doctor who now works in a hospital in Raqqa and serves as a recruiter on YouTube. The U.S. should mimic ISIS’s approach in this area as well and exploit the stories of the people who left the Islamic State, who abandoned the cause, who felt they had been betrayed. Properly amplifying these narratives on social media would help expose the reality of what ISIS is doing.
Finally the third point to consider is one of content and aesthetics. ISIS has long been employing the aesthetics of popular culture by imitating contemporary Hollywood films, video games and TV shows. The US should also be exploiting this appealing entertainment dimension in its counter-propaganda. One interesting example is that of Humza Arshad, a young British Pakistani Muslim comedian who challenges the jihadi appeal trough comedy. His YouTube videos have drawn over 60 million views, making a hero to Muslim teenagers and perhaps the one of the most potent weapons in Britain’s campaign to counter violent Islamist extremism. Arshad, as a young Muslim who started this endeavor independently from his own initiative, appears as a credible voice that young British Muslims are willing to listen to. Through his channel, he is able to engage in a significant dialogue with young people at risk of radicalization.
Humza Arshad’s channel on YouTube. Courtesy of Humza Productions.
All of these considerations should be integrated in a structured one-to-one targeting strategy to face ISIS recruiting actions on social media. As an example, a London think tank called the Institute for Strategic Dialogue recently developed a methodical peer-to-peer anti-extremism strategy. The group initially recruited 10 former extremists (five from far-right groups, five from jihadist groups) to operate as “interveners”. They then utilized a Facebook function called ‘Graph Search’ to locate a group of people whose interests, pages liked, group memberships, and other indicators indicated that they were likely to be moving toward extremism. The interveners sorted through the list and narrowed it down to 160 people and used the little-known “pay per message” feature (you can pay $1 to send a message to strangers) to start a conversation with them.
The initial results showed that most recipients responded to the first message, a crucial preliminary step. Approximately 60 percent of them then began a “sustained engagement” when the initial approach was nonjudgmental and empathetic. The study was only a small test, but it shows what a comprehensive peer-to-peer strategy against extremism could possibly look like. Social media has assisted extremist causes, but if we optimize them there are a lot of ways for us to push back using the same tools.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.