Countering the Islamic State in the Asymmetric Social Media Battlefield.
Steven Metz |Friday, June 19, 2015
A recent memorandum by Undersecretary of State Richard Stengel painted an ominous picture of America’s failure to counter propaganda from the so-called Islamic State (IS). Across the board, the U.S. narrative is, as Stengel put it, “being trumped.”
|Screenshot of a YouTube video of an alleged Islamic State boot camp graduation, taken on Oct. 13, 2014.|
To a great extent this competition of narratives takes place on the Internet, particularly in social media. The Islamic State has made mistakes in that venue, but a number of indicators—its continued flow of recruits, the number of other extremist movements seeking to affiliate with it and its ability to inspire attacks in the West—demonstrate that the United States is losing on the social media battlefield.
In a sense, this is not surprising: The Islamic State has several advantages that it exploits in this realm. Its narrative, for instance, promises heroism and heavenly rewards. This is intrinsically more appealing to its idealistic, alienated and immature audience than counternarratives based on responsibility, moderation and safety. Also, the Islamic State’s presence on social media is massive. A recent Brookings Institute report by J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan estimated that IS has around 46,000 Twitter accounts and can open new ones as fast as old ones are identified and closed.
Unhindered by bureaucracy and regulation, the Islamic State’s social media warriors rapidly swarm on a new theme or event. As Mark Mazzetti and Michael Gordon wrote in The New York Times, the group is far more nimble in spreading its message than the United States is in blunting it. Its social media warriors are unconstrained by laws, norms or conventional morality. Like 20th century communists, they are convinced that their ends justify almost any means. They are also good at finding advantageous niches of the Internet—its “ungoverned spaces.” The Islamic State, as Aaron David Miller put it, is “a growing multifaceted political, economic, social, military, and terrorist entity that dominates real estate and cyberspace as it seeks opportunistically—like some hostile microbes—new homes and hosts.”
The Islamic State also inherited a solid foundation for success on the social media battlefield. Al-Qaida and the first generation of Iraqi insurgents discovered that perception-management following a guerrilla or terrorist operation was as important as the physical effects of the operation itself. After a few years of insurgency, the fighters in Iraq could produce and disseminate a high-quality video of an attack in a matter of hours, sometimes even less. The Islamic State is even more ruthless and effective at creating videos that transfix and inspire its recruits and supporters, playing heavily on the themes of courage, heroism and sacrifice for a greater cause. And its social media warriors are supplemented by sympathizers around the world who help amplify their messages, as well as by anti-Western sentiment and conspiracy theories already rampant in the Islamic world’s mainstream media.
In this asymmetric battle, the United States faces serious limitations, including legal and ethical constraints, a sclerotic bureaucracy and a deep belief that, if told, the truth will eventually win out. In the old Cold War security environment, where each side stuck to its narrative and messages for years or decades, that might have been true. In today’s fluid information environment, where perceptions, beliefs and memes coalesce with lightening speed and then shift rapidly as new ones take their place, it may not.
Despite this, the United States continues to believe that if it constructs a better organization for the social media battlefield, the tide will shift. Stengel’s memorandum, for instance, explained that, “The big proposal to fix the internal/external coalition messaging problem is to create a full-time coalition communications hub” that can “produce a daily thematic guidance.” The problem, from this perspective, is not too much bureaucracy and centralized control, but rather too little.
This is simply wrong. Even if the United States and its coalition partners did somehow create a unified organization to develop, authorize and disseminate messages, there is little reason to believe this would undercut the extremists’ prowess in the social media battlefield. The Islamic State is effective not because of the coherence of its narrative but because of that narrative’s power, as well as the organization’s ability to “swarm” rapidly in terms of cyber messaging and its lack of organizational or ethical constraints. A unified message on the part of the coalition won’t change this.
This leaves two options. One is simply to accept the Islamic State’s superiority on the social media battlefield and concentrate on the physical dimensions of the conflict. The thinking is that victories in the physical realm will undercut the Islamic State’s skill in the virtual world. As Middle East expert Michael Eisenstadt argued, “Through military victories, the United States can defeat [the Islamic State’s] media effort by demonstrating that the tide is turning against it and that its days are numbered. The defeat of [the Islamic State] is thus key to undermining its appeal, discrediting its ideology, and demolishing its brand.”
In other words, as Aaron David Miller put it, the war against IS “will not be won or lost in cyberspace.”
Perhaps this is true. But simply because there is no precedent for the cyber realm being decisive in conflict does not mean it cannot happen.
The other option, then, is bolder and riskier: Empower an unofficial force of anti-IS social media warriors. These social media guerrillas would function as the modern-day equivalent of 18th-century privateers, who were armed with a letter of marque from a belligerent country to attack its enemies’ ships in wartime. This, of course, would entail great risk, since the social media vigilantes would by definition be outside the control of the United States or any other nation and as unconstrained by law or morality as the Islamic State itself.
Today that risk is probably too great for Washington to bear. But if the conflict with the Islamic State continues and the extremists’ superiority on the social media battlefield begins to have more important consequences, U.S. policymakers might be driven by desperation to consider it.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.