The Soft Power War ISIS Doesn’t Want
Again, we stand in shock, but not in real surprise. It takes careful planning to inflict indiscriminate violence and bloodshed—and the confusion, fear and anger that follow—upon the worlds. It also involved the skillful use of technology and social media.
The recent attacks in Paris brought mass casualties, terror on the streets, worldwide outrage and pledges to be “merciless” and “pitiless” against the “barbarians of the Islamic State.” For the foreseeable future, the world must remain on high alert.
Unfortunately, this is all according to ISIS’s game plan.
In equal and symbiotic parts, theirs is an armed and ideological strategy. It is designed to maim the world into divisiveness and hatred and cause us to lay down our most sustainable weapons: freedom, tolerance and mutual trust. Often, we alienate precisely the communities we need to reach.
Military and foreign policy experts tell us that we are in a protracted ideological battle. If we are to stem the spread of this global movement, more must be done to support our military, intelligence and law enforcement efforts.
For too long, ISIS’ digital influence in social media has gone largely unchecked. We have failed to match their commitment to content, imagery, emotion and reach. (President Obama describes them as “killers with good social media” who recruit in “far-flung” places.) In the wake of the Paris attacks and our response, ISIS has “upped” its online game of intimidation and terror. It is time to bring our best resources and talent to the front lines of social media where ISIS informs, recruits and incites. This is the disruptive “soft power” response that ISIS doesn’t want—and cannot match.
Here is why:
- We have the advantage in ideas, people and technology.
- Our response would be scalable, effective and costs pennies on the dollars of armed conflict.
- It would not incur military or civilian casualties or enable them to use the graphic propaganda of conventional warfare.
- The “pieces” of a global coalition of the willing and able already exist; they just need to be organized and digitally unleashed.
If you doubt that this is the war that ISIS doesn’t want, go to their playbooks. In summary fashion, here’s what their manifestos and actions say:
- Work to expose the weakness of America’s centralized power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and war by proxy until it fights directly.
- Draw the West into military conflict. Seek the confrontations that will bring the U. S. to fight overseas on our terms.
- Diversify the strikes and attack soft targets. Disperse their resources and drain them to the greatest extent possible.
- Target disaffected young, who tend to rebel against authority, are eager for self-sacrifice and are filled with idealism.
- Motivate the masses to fly to regions that we manage.
- Use social media to inspire sympathizers abroad to violence. Communicate the message: Do what you can with whatever you have, wherever you are, whenever possible.
Social media was the medium that was meant to bring the world closer. In the process, it eliminated the barriers for groups such as ISIS to recruit, organize and strike efficiently. It is an inherently decentralized medium in which commitment and will trump geopolitical power. ISIS has used it to full effect. We have not.
ISIS’s social media strategy has worked globally to scale influence, gain sympathy, find recruits and message legitimacy. This, in part, is why the strongest nations in the world remain vulnerable to attack from within—and why support for their caliphate expands.
For obvious reasons, military responses alone are not enough. ISIS—like social media itself—is organized as a hydra. Cut off one head. Two grow back. In fact, ISIS invites direct warfare to produce the confrontation and propaganda that they need to light up the Internet and incite greater violence against the West.
Even with better intelligence and policing, we remain highly vulnerable—not only to attacks, but to the loss of civil liberties. Pragmatically, officials concede they cannot protect every target or person. In today’s interconnected world, anyone can plan and execute an attack—or remotely encourage others to do so. The right social media campaign can help identify and diffuse these threats.
For too long, ISIS’ digital influence in social media has gone largely unchecked.
The effort starts with some common sense steps and organizational leadership from the private, NGO and academic sectors:
- Identify leading expertise and data. Know the messages that resonate and why. Include cognitive and social scientists, historians, geopolitical experts, spiritual leaders, scholars, security and intelligence professionals, content and marketing experts, bloggers, media and gaming creators and storytellers.
- Find the counter-narratives that work and curate an independent influencer network of credible global voices, local content creators, bloggers, etc., who grasp the generational, cultural, theological and geographical nuances of their communities.
- Build a network of social media “early responders” to monitor, obfuscate, overwhelm, disrupt and block the distribution of ISIS content.
- Implement marketing and data services to map and profile “at-risk” audiences. Integrate data on consumption (what people watch and click), natural language (what they say) and relationships (whom they connect with) culled from social media, search, web programmatic, dark social and web. (Think: BlueKai, a data management platform, for extremism.)
- Build a marketing engine to out-distribute ISIS, by sourcing, sharing and serving content across mobile messaging at great frequency and scale.
- Broadcast first-hand accounts about life under ISIS’s rule. Compelling narratives have already emerged about the realities of the caliphate, such as Helping the Escaped Slaves of ISIS from The Wall Street Journal, and from The New York Times, ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish and Escape, and ISIS Promise of Statehood Falling Far Short, Ex-Residents Say.
- Crowd-source funding and volunteers to ensure non-governmental control. Around the world, people want to help.
- Measure the progress. Succeed. Fail. Learn. Innovate. Sustain the response, no matter its origin or sponsors.
Action is needed because what happens over the Internet can be far more impactful than what happens on the ground.
ISIS has positioned itself as a call to action, wrapped around claims of a thrilling and just cause. On a daily basis, the shock and awe of its content draws tens of millions of global viewers. Scott Atran, a leading authority on terrorism who also is director of research in anthropology at France’s National Center for Scientific Research and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has noted that ISIS’s theatrical content is intended to instill meaning that is “sacred and sublime”as well as to scare “fence-sitters and enemies.”
Beheadings and executions by fire send a message of indomitability and momentum, while poetry, music, scripture, imagery and the promise of a caliphate utopia offer a higher calling. Its message finds an international audience that can transcend education, employment and social demographics.
No matter how one views ISIS’s threat, one fact is indisputable. The group has changed the nature of terror and how it can be choreographed over the long term. ISIS’s leaders recognize that social media has given them a highly decentralized, diversified and metastasized threat with no physical center to defeat. Above all, they control a prolific machine for messaging, recruitment and crowd-sourcing violence—one that has yet to confront our best forces of competition–according to The Washington Post.
In the first 24 hours following the attacks on Paris, there were hundreds of thousands of celebratory tweets from supporters of ISIS. An estimated 50,000 Twitter accounts—each having thousands of followers—streamed photo essays, audio, video, news bulletins and theological writings.
Remarkably, there was no organized response from the West or any Muslim-majority countries.
ISIS recruits not only in the neighborhoods of target cities, but globally among nearly 1 billion digitally native Muslim millennials. Young people are far more likely to come across ISIS content and a call to action than an occasional message pushing back. ISIS’s images, texts, narratives and personal messages rival the most sophisticated advertising campaigns. They offer a supra-national brand (caliphate), iconography (a black flag), brand promise (restored identity and glory) and a glossy publication (Dabiq).
The Brookings Institution estimates that ISIS controls about 46,000 accounts, each an average of 1,000 followers.
Another recent study found that ISIS issued more than 1,146 official communiqués in a single month. These messages come from a determined army of online digital foot soldiers that have won over tens of thousands of recruits worldwide.
Like all global marketers trying to influence millennials, ISIS uses the most popular social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as peer-to-peer and gaming platforms. Their strategy is targeted and scripted. They use sophisticated marketing technology to sift hundreds of millions of social media messages in search of a few thousand users who are likely to support their causes. (Many of the conversations are encrypted to avoid law enforcement’s detection. ISIS even offers an online encryption “help desk.”)
A reasonable question might be asked out of a “colder” war and a prior technology: Where is the Radio Free Europe against this threat? Updated: Where is our digital army?
The U.S. State Department’s social media program, “Think Again, Turn Away,” is well-intended, but hardly a match. It tries to dissuade youth with mass negative messaging. “So DAESH wants to build a future. Well, is beheading a future you want, or someone controlling details of your diet and dress?” As Atran points out: “Can anyone not know that already? Does it really matter to those drawn to the cause despite, or even because of, such things?”
In contrast, as Atran and others observe, the Islamic State may spend hundreds of hours enlisting single individuals and their friends, empathizing instead of lecturing, turning personal frustrations and grievances into moral outrage. ISIS understands that young people empathize with each other; they generally don’t lecture.
From Syria, a young woman messages another:
I know how hard it is to leave behind the mother and father you love, and not tell them until you are here, that you will always love them but that you were put on this earth to do more than be with or honor your parents. I know this will probably be the hardest thing you may ever have to do, but let me help you explain it to yourself and to them.
Since 9/11, there has been much discussion about the online influence of extremism. Now is the time for leadership and action.
We already know the people ISIS targets. We need messages of hope for those who are disillusioned and disaffected—those seeking meaning, glory, esteem, adventure, respect, remembrance, camaraderie, justice, rebellion, self-sacrifice and structure around personal chaos.
We also know that in social media, the messenger matters. Government voices lack authenticity and agility and are suspect due to their policies and practices.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of credible voices ready to engage globally. There are thousands of individuals and organizations around the globe that know the social platforms and have the alternative narratives to the claims of victimhood and triumphal war that ISIS puts out.
At the community level and from popular culture, these include athletes, musicians, graffiti artists, hip-hop activists, actors, comedians, imams, business icons and others. Scores of NGOs already exist in different parts of the world, formed by former extremists, experienced educators, artists, media creators, religious leaders and young Muslims. They are making an impact but need organizational, financial and resource support. Even “hacktavists” have entered the effort to disrupt ISIS’s online influence.
Our business, scientific and academic communities have much to offer and are ready to assist. We have the experts in communications and marketing, who globally launch successful brands, products, social networks and political campaigns. We have the media creators and storytellers who transfix audiences the world over. There are those that understand the cognitive processes that motivate and drive human choices, including some of our younger minds, who intimately know what resonates.
The struggle against extremism, in this respect, is no different from prior moments in history when we have had to mobilize all of our resources—regardless of sector or age—in defense of the common good. This is how we fight World Wars, find cures for diseases, aid victims of natural and man-made disasters and race into space.
Governments can be useful (even essential) in seeding these efforts, financially and with organizational support. But free societies have always needed the commitment and leadership of their citizens and the private sector.
When it comes to social media, we own the advantages in resources, technology, knowledge and creativity. Now is the time to mobilize our best people, ideas, narratives and ideals to defeat a force that would divide and destroy us.
There are private sector-led coalition models on other issues that can be emulated. Organizational leadership is the only missing ingredient. This is the “soft power” war that ISIS does not want. This is the war they cannot win—if we actually begin to fight it.
This piece first appeared on Knowledge@Wharton
Additional authors of this piece include:
Curtis Hougland, co-founder of Ideaology, a not-for-profit social media agency for social good.
Tim Murphy, former Deputy Director of the FBI.
John Squires, senior partner at the law firm of Perkins Coie, specializing in intellectual property and technology law, and served as chief IP counsel for Goldman Sachs.
Daniel Garrie, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Law and Cyber Warfare and the co-head of the cyber security practice at the law firm of Zeichner Ellman & Krause.
Matthew Lawrence, legal and IP researcher at Perkins Coie and attends Fordham University Law School.
The authors also acknowledge the contributions of Elizabeth Squires.