Inciting the Interwebs: A short history of ISIS propaganda

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ISIS is becoming old news these days. Recent coverage of the group talks about reclaiming its territory, freeing its captives, or the implications of its dwindling supply of funds. One gets the impression that the group’s very survival is now on the line. To an extent, ISIS has lost some of its former potency. Written from the perspective of a content strategist, combined with insights from academic experts on terrorism, this article will explore the various elements of ISIS propaganda; how they work together to promote the group’s goals; the ingredients of its success; and how ISIS might maintain its brand in future, in the light of recent territorial losses.

Many of horror: viral videos 

Not long ago, ISIS was shocking the world on a regular basis with its barrage of blood-drenched videos, gory tweets and declarations of violence against the West. At the time, there seemed no limit to the group’s barbarity. I remember travelling to Amman in early March 2015, just weeks after ISIS released a video showing the immolation of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh. The Jordanians I met on that trip were sombre yet enraged. They wanted to wipe ISIS out immediately, and the government responded to public sentiment without hesitation; promptly executing ISIS-linked prisoners and launching warplanes against ISIS targets within a matter of days.

Kasasbeh’s murder displayed a shocking new angle of ISIS brutality, which had already been established via previous videos showing the beheadings of Western captives. At the time, these videos were the most visible aspect of the group’s strategy vis-a-vis Western audiences. The intention was to incite fear and provoke responses, both of which worked very well. The videos initially gained traction from widespread sharing across ISIS social media accounts. Social media companies targeted and shut down these accounts en masse, but the videos had already gained such notoriety in mainstream media that many people sought them out nevertheless.

Goals, target audience and ‘customer’ personas

The foundation of a good content strategy is knowing who it’s for and what their problems are. Using that knowledge for guidance, content can be produced to address those problems and offer helpful solutions. In the case of ISIS, the intended target audience is large, consisting of Muslims the world over. ISIS wants to convince its audience that restoring the caliphate and building a ‘brave new world’ is their religious duty. But of course, not every Muslim is susceptible to this narrative; in fact, most don’t support ISIS at all. So ISIS went a step further and segmented its target audience to focus on those with more specific grievances. Perhaps some parts of the target audience were angry at the humanitarian situation in Syria. ISIS offers them a solution: come join us and fight against Assad, freeing the Syrian people (fellow Muslims) from tyrannical and secular rule. ISIS also offers a compelling narrative of friendship and belonging, which is undoubtedly appealing to those who feel they don’t fit into Western society. Apart from violence designed to intimidate the enemy, ISIS propaganda also includes ‘fluffier’ images of its members eating chocolate and playing with kittens (a nod to the Prophet Muhammed’s fondness for cats). A sense of religious duty forms the overarching ‘grand’ narrative, drawing on themes from the Qur’an and various Hadiths (sayings of Muhammed) to create credibility and imbue ISIS content with indubitable religious overtones.

Varied mediums, consistent messages

ISIS first become notorious via its shocking videos, along with the resulting press coverage and wider discussion they generated. If anything, the mainstream media was the most important vehicle for spreading these videos around the world, helping ISIS establish its brand and gain infamy. We can link this effect directly to the 21st century media business model that relies on clicks to earn its money. But that’s a topic for another article. Most content strategists these days like to put video at the forefront of their campaigns, as it’s emotive and generates much attention, with YouTube alone receiving billions of hits every month. ISIS doesn’t just make videos of blood and gore. The group also makes a whole range of propaganda videos full of positive sentiment, displaying life inside the ‘caliphate’, promoting the ‘duty’ of jihad, and showing testimonials from the group’s foreign fighters.

Apart from video, ISIS leverages a number of other mediums to spread its message and achieve its goals. Twitter was a key element in the early days, with ISIS supporters using techniques such as hashtag hijacking to make sure the content reached wide audiences. For example, during the Brazil World Cup in 2014, ISIS supporters ‘imaginatively hijacked hashtags such as #Brazil2014, #ENG, #France and #WC2014 to gain access to millions of World Cup Twitter searches, in the hope that users would follow links to the group’s propaganda video.’ (Farwell, 2014)

On top of smart moves like the above, the group’s armies of supporters would be constantly tweeting pro-ISIS messages in both English and Arabic, praising victories and challenging opponents, while offering tantalising glimpses of the attractions of life inside the Syrian ‘caliphate’ in Raqqa. After Twitter and Facebook started mass takedown campaigns of jihadist accounts, ISIS supporters were driven underground into the dark recesses of the ‘deep web’, and also onto encrypted channels such as Telegram. But for those who want to find it, ISIS content is never far away, and has firmly established itself on a number of regular channels outside the reach of the authorities. And by now it hardly matters, as the brand of ISIS has been built and has acquired the desired resonance, as well as, some might claim, the desired geopolitical effects.

Reshaping perceptions: Dabiq

The magazine Dabiq is another core element of ISIS content strategy. Produced in English, with slick and professional design, Dabiq is a cut above the jihadist magazines that came before. According to a 2016 analysis by Haroro J. Ingram, Dabiq has two goals: 1) to convince its target audience to travel to the caliphate, and 2) to convince them to conduct acts of domestic terrorism. It does this by offering its audience an ‘alternative perspective’ of the world that drives their radicalisation, while also using diverse messaging to create a ‘broader system of meaning’ (Ingram, 2016) that resonates at a deeply emotional level with its audiences. Good content marketing is all about engaging with emotions, which accounts for much of the success both of Dabiq and of ISIS content strategy as a whole. The Ingram analysis is particularly interesting, because rather than simply attributing ISIS’s success to its sophisticated content production techniques, Ingram delves deeper and explores the group’s attempts to shift the perceptions of its readership using carefully crafted messaging that resonates at fundamental levels.

Louder than bombs: the mainstream media

For ordinary content marketers, coverage in the mainstream media is one of the best forms of publicity available. Every day, companies spend a lot of money on PR activities to get their brand in front of journalists and featured in the news. As a terrorist organisation, ISIS also understands the power of the mainstream media and has harnessed it to devastating effect; ‘louder than bombs’ according to Charlie Winter’s recent Media Jihad report.

Based on Winter’s analysis of an ISIS-produced strategy document entitled Media Operative: You Are a Mujahid Too, the report details exactly how ISIS constructs its highly coherent and carefully planned media strategy. One prong of the strategy involves the mainstream media, which the document calls the ‘media weapon’. The below quote in particular shows how ISIS aims to use this ‘weapon’.

“Anyone who knows the Crusaders of today and keeps track of that which infuriates them understands how they are angered and terrorised by jihadi media. They – the curse of Allah the Almighty be on them – know its importance, impact and significance more than any others!”

ISIS strategists know how to manipulate the mainstream media for the group’s own ends. In today’s clickbait world, the more shocking the story the more airtime it gets. As a result, the deeds and hence the group responsible for them attract even more attention; analysis, critique, anger, hatred, disgust, and sometimes, inspiring love and obsession.

Media ‘jihad’, as ISIS calls it, has ‘ “far-reaching potential to change the balance in respect to the war between the Muslims and their enemies” and, for that reason, “is no less important than the material fight.”. Not only does it offer a way to “intimidate and threaten the enemy with violence,” it can make adversaries act irrationally by “infuriating them” and ensnaring policymakers into ill-conceived knee-jerk politics’ (Winter, 2017).

The latter is precisely what has happened. The world’s media has responded predictably to every piece of ISIS propaganda, disseminated it far and wide, and in the process made the group legendary for its brutality. In the short time since ISIS emerged the world’s mood has shifted. We have become more suspicious of strangers, more fearful, and less compassionate. Hatred and distrust between Muslim communities and non-Muslims has reached a fever pitch, culminating in major political shifts that gave us Brexit and Trump’s presidency. Those campaigns gained momentum by playing on people’s deep-seated fears of the ‘Other’, in this case Muslims. Without the fearful propaganda of ISIS writ large in the minds of Western populaces, perhaps matters would have turned out differently. Sowing discord was always part of the strategy, and it’s working. The question is now, how to reverse the tide?


References

Haroro J. Ingram (2016) An analysis of Islamic State’s Dabiq magazine, Australian Journal of Political Science, 51:3, 458-477, DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2016.1174188

James P. Farwell (2014) The Media Strategy of ISIS, Survival, 56:6, 49-55, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2014.985436

Charlie Winter (2017) Media Jihad | http://icsr.info/2017/02/icsr-report-media-jihad-islamic-states-doctrine-information-warfare/

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