The Fight Against ISIS' "Shock and Gore" Media Campaign

Simon Cottee in the Atlantic interviews top U.S. counterterrorism officials about the daunting challenge the U.S. faces in trying to combat ISIS propaganda war and what it will take to defeat it.

The U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) was created in 2010 to counter jihadist online media. It's motto, which appears on every powerpoint presentation, is “Media is more than half the battle" and “The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives.” (The latter is a quote by a dead militant.)[More...]

Alberto Fernandez is the coordinator of the CSCC. The CSCC's goal is to undermine the jihadist message and make it less appealing to potential recruits.

What we do is counter-messaging. We’re the guys in the political campaign that [do] negative advertising. We’re in people’s faces.”

Fernandez says the U.S. doesn't have a compelling counter-narrative. Nor does it have "fanboys" to spread its message. He describes the fanboys as "dedicated, self-sufficient and occasionally funny." Cottee writes:

More crucially, ISIS has a narrative. This is often described by the group’s opponents as “superficial” or “bankrupt.” Only it isn’t. It is immensely rich. ... These fighters may be naive or stupid, but they didn’t sacrifice everything for nothing. John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at University of Massachusetts Lowell, told me that people who join groups like ISIS “are trying to find a path, to answer a call to something, to right some perceived wrong, to do something truly meaningful with their lives.”

In addition to the narrative:

Shock and gore....is where the action is—and hence where the Internet traffic tends to go. “You’re never going to be able to match the power of their outrageousness,” Fernandez said, conceding this disadvantage.

Fernandez says the U.S. has only half a message to work with:

ISIS’s message,” he said, “is that Muslims are being killed and that they’re the solution. ... There is an appeal to violence, obviously, but there is also an appeal to the best in people, to people’s aspirations, hopes and dreams, to their deepest yearnings for identity, faith, and self-actualization. We don’t have a counter-narrative that speaks to that. What we have is half a message: ‘Don’t do this.’ But we lack the ‘do this instead.’ That’s not very exciting. The positive narrative is always more powerful, especially if it involves dressing in black like a ninja, having a cool flag, being on television, and fighting for your people.”

Cottee writes:

The more immediate, but no less intractable, challenge is to change the reality on the ground in Syria and Iraq, so that ISIS’s narrative of Sunni Muslim persecution at the hands of the Assad regime and Iranian-backed Shiite militias commands less resonance among Sunnis. One problem in countering that narrative is that some of it happens to be true: Sunni Muslims are being persecuted in Syria and Iraq.

He quotes Scott Atran's book Talking to the Enemy:

“In the long run, perhaps the most important counterterrorism measure of all is to provide alternative heroes and hopes that are more enticing and empowering than any moderating lessons or material offerings.”

If media is half the battle, the other half is the reality on the ground. Right now, Cottee says, the reality on the ground supports ISIS' narrative. Fernandez says:

“Saying ISIS is bad is not good enough. There has to be change on the ground. Messaging can shape and shade, but it can’t turn black into white.”

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  • Display: Sort:
    I've been really trying to think of what a (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by ruffian on Wed Mar 11, 2015 at 04:13:05 PM EST
    counter ISIS video would show. Happy non-ISIS families going about their lives in Iraq? How do you show that without the piles of rubble we left behind in the background? How prominent would women and girls be in any scenes shot outdoors, if the appeal is to ultra-conservative Muslims who may be tempted into ISIS, but have not yet joined? I guess shopping in a market would be acceptable

    It is indeed a tough nut to crack.

    It isn't our job to prevent the youth of (none / 0) (#5)
    by Militarytracy on Wed Mar 11, 2015 at 05:39:58 PM EST
    Iraq from joining ISIS.  It really isn't our job to do successfully, they aren't our kids. That's Iraq's job.  That is Baghdad's job. Our job is our youth.  

    But if there is one thing that ISIS fighters seem to desire and covet it's designer items and luxury items.  So, when you're ISIS your Ray-Bans get scratched. When you're ISIS, baths are optional and you run out of Egoiste just trying to stand yourself :)

    From what I've seen ISIS fighters love pop culture, and you can't be enjoying much pop culture hiding in the desert hungry and dirty.


    And really, our own military propaganda... (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by Dadler on Wed Mar 11, 2015 at 04:35:31 PM EST
    ...is just as bad in its own context. Those grotesque television commercials shilling for signups with wow-factor computer effects and appeals to "honor." Disgusting.

    your first comment was deleted (none / 0) (#4)
    by Jeralyn on Wed Mar 11, 2015 at 05:07:07 PM EST
    for misstating your opinion of ISIS' motives as fact.

    I would think a good (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by Slado on Thu Mar 12, 2015 at 12:09:18 AM EST
    Place to start is to fund and team up with more moderate Mullahs, clerics and leaders putting out a moderate message and removing any reference back to us.   Let it seem to be coming at every level from local or credible Muslims.   We need to directly counter the propoganda with theological alternatives and show how much evil they are committing against other Muslims.  Specifically Sunnis who are only guilty of not joining them or not being hardline enough.

    We can't compete on a level playing field if we "The West" try to tell Muslims that ISIS are extremists and not real Muslims.  Any reference back to us immediately shrinks the audience because anyone who is even considering joining ISIS is not going to be receptive to westerners telling them about their own faith.  

    The Way I See It (none / 0) (#6)
    by RickyJim on Wed Mar 11, 2015 at 07:38:47 PM EST
    ISIS at its core seems to be angry young Sunnis trying to recover power from uppity Shias, in a way vaguely analogous to the KuKluxKlan after the American Civil War and Reconstruction.  Does the US have more to worry about than its trillion dollar oil investment in Kurdistan?  If not, we are doing enough now and don't have to worry too much about how to pull off a change of ideals among ISIS members.