Simon Cottee writes: ISIS’s métier is shock and gore, whereas the [U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications] CSCC’s, to put it unkindly, is more mock and bore, more Fred Flintstone than Freddy Krueger. Shock and gore, needless to say, 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.
ISIS has a vast network of “fanboys,” as its virtual supporters are widely and derisively known, who disseminate the group’s online propaganda. (ISIS ennobles them with the title “knights of the uploading.”) They are dedicated, self-sufficient, and even, Fernandez said, occasionally funny. And they are everywhere on Twitter, despite the social-media network’s efforts to ban them. Fernandez described the group’s embrace of social media as “a stroke of genius on their part.” The CSCC doesn’t have fanboys.
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. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence estimates that of the 20,000 or more foreign jihadists believed to have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, around 100 are from the United States. 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.”
The CSCC doesn’t have a narrative — not one, at any rate, remotely comparable in emotional affect and resonance to that of ISIS. No one is more sharply aware of this than Fernandez himself. “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.” [Continue reading…]
It’s a bit misleading to keep on talking about the need for a counter-narrative when narratives are nothing more than marketing strategies.
ISIS’s marketing strategy is coupled with the realities it has created on the ground. It might be marketing hype to pronounce the territory under its control as a caliphate, but the fact is, it does control real territory as large as a medium-sized country. Without that territory, it would have next to nothing to market.
Countering ISIS requires much more than coming up with a better pitch — it has to be a pitch for something tangible and not just some vacuous promise of a better future. Such a narrative (if it can be found) can neither be crafted nor delivered by the U.S. government