We may control the Air, but the enemy controls the airwaves (Media).
Western efforts to counter ISIS must account for both the content and distribution of its message. The ISIS propaganda machine is a calculated affair. It has several major goals, all of which involve an effort to simplify the complexity of the real world into a cartoonish battle between good and evil.
Here, then, are the goals ISIS is pursuing with its propaganda:
Each of these goals is vulnerable to a messaging counteroffensive. We propose a 6-point plan:
The nations fighting ISIS need an organization to run a counter-narrative campaign. Madison Avenue advertising gurus aren’t capable of leading this effort; it should instead be led by individuals who know how to access at-risk youth. A commission needs to study how ISIS and related groups market themselves, and develop a plan for competing directly in those markets, while at the same time developing a strategy for expanding into other markets.
One model, still in a testing phase, is called “P2P: Challenging Extremism.” This initiative provides an opportunity for university students from the United States, Canada, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Australia, and Asia to create an online community whose goal is to counter the extremist narrative by becoming educated influencers. With support from the U.S. Department of State, the effort is being run by a private organization called EdVentures, that helps companies such as Honda market to youth. After students conduct primary research, they will be competing to develop the best products, tools, or digital initiative that will be developed in the language of their peers, the effectiveness of which will be measured.
Containing ISIS will take a multi-pronged approach, including, most importantly, pressure on its real world components. But the presence of Western troops on the ground entails significant risk, and could backfire by helping ISIS recruit additional personnel who buy into its false narrative about a Western crusade against Islam. While a propaganda campaign will not defeat ISIS, it can lead to “seeds of doubt,” which former terrorists often describe as central to their decisions to leave terrorism behind. With a major effort, it has been possible to alter narratives in respect to other dangerous activities. Consider the CDC anti-smoking campaign involving “tips from former smokers,” which reportedly led 100,000 individuals to give up smoking in its first three-month long effort. We need an analogous campaign, with tips from former jihadis, spread widely over the ever-changing social media environment and beyond. Such a campaign, to be effective, will require money and effort. But the costs of such efforts are tiny compared to military force, whether counted in dollars, loss of life, or blowback on American streets. It’s a smart investment.
Analysis of the 30 September 2013 BBC Panorama documentary 'Saving Syria's Children' and related BBC News reports, contending that sequences filmed by BBC personnel and others at Atareb Hospital, Aleppo on 26 August 2013 purporting to show the aftermath of an incendiary bomb attack on a school in Urm Al-Kubra are largely, if not entirely, staged.
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