A War of Narratives

“The United States is engaged in a war of ideas – and it’s losing.”

This is the opening line of J.M. Berger’s recent piece in for The Atlantic, one that looks at the narratives coming from both sides, and how and why America is perceived to be losing. Berger does not necessarily agree with the above statement; instead he uses it as a point of exploration for investigating how ISIS’s narrative has been constructed, and how it can best be torn apart.

Berger points out, “The myth that America’s narrative is losing to ISIS’s persists despite the fact that millions of people are fleeing ISIS territories, while mere thousands have traveled to join the group. It persists despite the fact that the Islamic State’s ideological sympathizers make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population,even using the most hysterically alarmist estimates, and the fact that active, voluntary participants in its caliphate project certainly make up less than a tenth of a percent.”

Regardless of widespread condemnation of ISIS’s actions, and vigilant counter-propaganda being produced, ISIS’s strategic narrative has proven to be stronger, more comprehensive, and ultimately more successful in many ways than those meant to counter it.

One narrative that ISIS has built is one of fear. The terrorist attacks that occur with more and more regularity are meant to incite just that – terror. Through these attacks the group has also built a narrative of strength – it would not succeed in continuing to gain recruits if the group was perceived as weak. ISIS as a force has promoted and ridden on these narratives through widespread use of social media, a phenomenon that Berg points out could only happen in this type of highly networked world. Producing propaganda videos and utilizing Twitter and Facebook are two ways that the group has succeeded in disseminating their message to a huge audience.

Despite the fact that social media sites continually try to block members of the group from posting, multiple second-hand videos of beheadings, re-posted by other (not necessarily extremist) users, each have over 1 million views. By contrast, the US State Department produced counter-propaganda video Welcome to the “Islamic State” Land (part of the Think Again Turn Away campaign), posted on the Department of State’s official YouTube channel, has only around 880,000 views. It cannot be denied that ISIS’s propaganda has had a hugely wide reach, regardless of what percentage of viewers agree with their ideas.

Part of this is shock value. As Simon Cottee writes for Defense One, “ISIS has beheading videos. The CSCC doesn’t. Beheading videos are shocking and repugnant. But they are also weirdly fascinating – and they go viral for this reason.”

Here, he hits on another key point – ISIS is succeeding through shock and fear, not through the strength of their ideas. In what has been presented as a “war of ideas” or an “ideological war,” ISIS’s actual ideas are the weakest part of the group’s narrative.

Berger claims, “ISIS is not succeeding because of the strength of its ideas. Instead, it exploits an increasingly networked world to sell its violent and apocalyptic ideology to a microscopic minority – people who are able to discover each other from a distance and organize collective action in ways that were virtually impossible before the rise of the internet.”

One way to successfully build a strategic counter-narrative is to capitalize on this weakness. This is being done by campaigns such as #notmyname, which disseminates a powerful anti-ISIS message from Muslims themselves, invalidating ISIS’s ideological message and incorrect interpretations of Islam.

By and large, however, this has not been the approach up until this point. Rather than attempting to disrupt ISIS’s process, the US has focused on diminishing the appeal of terrorism. The Think Again Turn Away video is one example of this, aimed at those believed to be at risk for joining ISIS by somewhat sarcastically highlighting the true atrocities taking place. In his article Berger quotes Will McCants in The ISIS Apocalypse: “Reducing the mass appeal of ISIS is pointless, given that it doesn’t have mass appeal.” The audience that ISIS targets for recruitment is miniscule compared to those who rally against the group.

Terrorism does not have mass appeal. It appeals to a small minority of (admittedly dangerous and concerning) people. Perhaps then, instead of focusing our narrative on these minorities, a better strategic narrative would be to rally together global communities against ISIS (such as the Islamic community in various nations around the world), showing unity despite cultural differences, and exhibiting strength in a non-violent way through the force of rational ideas.


3 thoughts on “A War of Narratives

  1. asvathababu

    Hannah, I absolutely agree with you regarding the intended targets of the US Government’s counter-terrorism strategies on social media. The number of people who were seduced solely by ISIS’s propaganda on social media are a minuscule number.

    Several studies have been conducted on the primary reason people are motivated to join ISIS and the predominant reason seems to be a sense of alienation and contempt for the society (or the West). These people could be from Western countries or they could be people directly affected by Western actions on the ground in the Middle east.

    However, I think ISIS has employed a rather effective way of reaching these people, both online and offline. Online, ISIS’s efforts have a global reach and they are able to push people on the brink of extremism, over the edge. Offline, they are able to promote a narrative of an Islamic caliphate that is peaceful and prosperous to all those who acquiesce. The strength of ISIS’s narrative lies in the fact that it seems to be the lesser evil compared to another Western intervention.

    If US were to combat this perception of ISIS, it needs to first improve people’s perception of it in these vulnerable areas.


    1. hshambroom

      That’s a really great point, Asvatha. You’re right – it isn’t enough for the US to think about a narrative specifically and directly aimed toward countering ISIS (though this is important too); we need to think about our global image as a whole. Since ISIS campaigns and fights against their negative perception of Western culture, exemplified in many ways by the US specifically, we need to think not only in terms of narrative but also in terms of nation branding. If our aims in countering ISIS propaganda are pointed toward people on the brink of joining, perhaps an important shift in perspective would be not to point out how unappealing ISIS is (as has been our strategy in the past), but to focus on increasing the appeal and perception of the US in the areas that are portrayed negatively by ISIS.


  2. hshambroom

    I thought this was an interesting update/follow up to this discussion, and worth it to leave here: http://fas.org/blogs/secrecy/2015/11/dod-counter-is/

    One part I thought was interesting was the acknowledgement of the weakness in their previous approach –

    ““Another gap exists in [DOD’s] ability to operate on social media and the Internet, due to a lack of organic capability” in relevant languages and culture, not to mention a compelling alternative vision that would appeal to Islamic State recruits. The Department will be forced to rely on contractors, even as it pursues efforts to “improve the Department’s ability to effectively operate in the social media and broader online information space.””

    Here, they acknowledge a lack of a strong counter-narrative that would incentivize potential recruits away from ISIS. It is also interesting to see the way this has been partitioned within the government, with Congress believing this should be a public diplomacy initiative while the DoD believes it should have a role too. It would seem, at this point, that engaging anyone and everyone who could contribute would be a wise plan. I thought the point about the immediacy needed for cyber narratives was compelling as well:

    ““The ability to rapidly respond to adversarial messaging and propaganda, particularly with offensive cyberspace operations to deny, disrupt, degrade or corrupt those messages, requires an Execute Order (EXORD) and is limited by current U.S. government policies.”

    “The review and approval process for conducting offensive cyberspace operations is lengthy, time consuming and held at the highest levels of government,” Gen. Votel wrote. “However, a rapid response is frequently required in order to effectively counter the message because cyber targets can be fleeting, access is dynamic, and attribution can be difficult to determine.””

    It is true that one of the strengths in ISIS’ digital presence is the amount and rapidity of their posts. It is interesting that countering this is made more difficult by current US policies.

    That being said, I do not think that swiftness of response of mass online posting is the key to good counter narrative here. As outlined in the original post, what the State Department and DoD need to collaborate on is finding a narrative that convincingly makes “our” side look more appealing than ISIS.


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