How to win the battle against the ISIS propaganda machine

The online world is a crucial battleground.

By: /
23 April, 2015
By: Henry Tuck
Programme Coordinator at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue

The offer was impressive — an $18,000 salary, house and car, all offered to a young Syrian to work for Al Hayat Media Centre, the official ISIS media operation. It was ISIS’ way to show how highly the group values communication; the internet has been key to recruiting and broadcasting their message.

Our own infrastructure has often been appropriated for terrorist purposes but ISIS has crafted a comprehensive online social media and communications strategy using mainstream online spaces to attract fighters from all over the world.

Its Al Hayat operation, alongside a network of affiliates, uses multiple mediums and platforms to disseminate content. Videos, memes, theological texts, how-to guides, magazines and audio recordings have flooded not only the major online players such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, but also lesser-known services such as Kik, Ask.FM and Soundcloud.

Their output is peer-to-peer, well versed in contemporary online discourse and tailored to specific audiences in numerous languages. It is subject to strict, centralised quality control and uses professional production techniques and equipment, including drones and personal HD cameras.

ISIS also attempts to artificially inflate their influence online using a dense, interconnected network of fighters, supporters and cheerleaders allied with tailor-made apps and bot systems. The sheer volume of content has made censorship difficult, although not impossible.

The most notorious aspect of ISIS propaganda is the use horrific, theatrical violence to attract media attention and project a ruthlessness that strikes fear into enemies, both near and far. The murders of hostages are pre-packaged in HD for 21st Century broadcast news, with the repulsive imagery ensuring widespread coverage.

Extreme violence has deterred dissent locally and been used as a virtual prelude to ISIS’ major territorial advances. Social media was used to devastating effect last summer to exaggerate the number of ISIS fighters and display brutal executions as a macabre warning, culminating in 30,000 Iraqi troops fleeing Mosul before the 800-1,000 strong ISIS force had arrived.

Tangible military success, coupled with their extensive and outrageous media production, has catapulted ISIS to the forefront of the extreme Islamist movement. They have inverted the strategy advocated by Al-Qaeda, expanding locally rather than pursuing global ambitions. By declaring a “caliphate” and maintaining an illusion of a utopian state, ISIS has been able to create a now-or-never mentality amongst its supporters.

Fighting narrative with narrative

ISIS is not the unstoppable online juggernaut it might appear to be, however. Flagging and taking down extremist content has its place, and can be effective at limiting the impact of online networks of ISIS supporters. Twitter for example has been able to reduce the overall volume and reach of ISIS content and constrain the growth of their supporters’ network by suspending accounts faster than new ones can be created and shared.

Despite this we cannot completely shield our young people from extremist messaging (much of which is abhorrent but not illegal). Instead we must offer a comprehensive counter-narrative that directly addresses and counters the appeals of propaganda.

We should promote positive alternatives to the simplistic solutions offered by extremists and highlight ways to effect political change constructively. We should raise awareness of where those with concerns over friends or family can seek help early, before it is too late to intervene.

We should feature testimonies of ISIS defectors and local activists to reveal the true nature of life under the “caliph.” Young people need to hear from credible voices with authenticity, those personally impacted by violent extremism.

Existing efforts need to be scaled up with greater resources and more accurate targeting to deliver the right messages to the right audiences. There are many examples of excellent counter-narrative initiatives, but too often they languish in the depths of YouTube, Facebook or Twitter with a small number of views, likes or followers (many of which are from journalists, academics and practitioners rather than young people or those at-risk from radicalisation).

We need to be less passive and engage more online. Extremists actively encourage potential supporters and recruits through social media. We must be just as proactive to stop these spaces remaining uncontested and reach out to those expressing extremist views online to offer alternatives to extremism and violence.

The ‘War on Terror’ should have taught us that extremism cannot be defeated by force alone, yet a strong counter-narrative can only do so much. Our approach to countering violent extremism needs to be less reactionary and focus instead on inoculating young people against extremism through education. Extremists understand the dangers education can pose to their ambitions; the mass kidnappings of children in Nigeria and the attacks on Garissa University in Kenya and the Peshawar Army School in Pakistan graphically confirm this.

We must educate our young people so that they are armed with the knowledge and understanding to make informed decisions about extremism and recognise propaganda when they see it. In the same way we address other social ills in schools, we must start early. When it comes to radicalisation, as with drugs and crime, education has proven more successful (and cost-effective) than intervention.

Our multimedia project, Extreme Dialogue, aims to raise awareness about radicalisation and highlight the impact of violent extremism through a series of short films featuring two Canadians, Daniel Gallant and Christianne Boudreau. We hope that their powerful stories — as featured below — will spark the discussions around extremism that we need to begin to tackle the problem.

The films are accompanied by a set of educational resources which provide guidance for teachers, youth workers, law-enforcement and others on how to use the films as a starting point for discussions in a safe and structured way. We understand that these are difficult and sensitive issues to address, and aim to provide those charged with educating young people with the tools they need to do so.

We have made small steps in the right direction, but need more help from governments and social media giants to ensure that counter-narrative content is given a fighting chance in the online marketplace of ideas. Extremism and propaganda must become a recognised component of the curriculum and approached in the same way as other safeguarding issues.

Once ISIS starts to experience defeats on the ground, and the “caliphate” begins to contract, it will be difficult to maintain their current allure. Until then, their carefully crafted narratives and recruitment propaganda will likely remain effective unless we are able to mobilise to challenge extremism, engage with our young people and promote positive alternatives, both online and in our communities.

ISIS has demonstrated the havoc violent extremist groups can cause when ceded territory in which to metastasize, and provided a media platform from which to proselytize. The multiple training camps operating in Syria and Iraq now have over 20,000 trained foreign fighter alumni, surpassing the total number of “mujahideen” that fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The legacy of ISIS will be felt long after the current incarnation of the group has imploded. That considered, we had better be prepared.

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Also in the series

Aiding ISIS victims: ‘We need access, not more funds’

Aiding ISIS victims: ‘We need access, not more funds’


Veteran humanitarian worker François Audet discusses the dilemmas ISIS has created for crisis-response operations.

On humanitarian efforts: Defeating ISIS is not the end

On humanitarian efforts: Defeating ISIS is not the end


The widespread displacement ISIS has caused will have consequences for years to come.

The dangerous myth of the female victim-fighter

The dangerous myth of the female victim-fighter


Though their role within ISIS may differ, women’s motives for joining the group are just as diverse as men’s.

Why the Islamic State actually stinks at social media

Why the Islamic State actually stinks at social media


The conventional wisdom is that ISIS has managed to become so successful largely because of its social media prowess. The conventional wisdom is wrong.

The Islamic State and the case for Responsibility to Protect

The Islamic State and the case for Responsibility to Protect


Do not let feelings toward past invasions in the Middle East deter us from protecting Syrians and Iraqis.

ISIS, by the numbers


How many fighters? How many countries fighting ISIS? How many refugees?