How to lose the propaganda war with ISIS


The New York Times reports: The Obama administration on Friday announced an overhaul of its efforts to respond to online propaganda from the Islamic State after months of acknowledgments that it had largely failed in its attempts to counter extremist recruitment and exhortations to violence on social media.

The administration has emphasized that it needs the assistance of some of the nation’s biggest technology companies, and a group of top White House and national security officials flew to California on Friday to plead their case with executives.

“Given the way the technology works these days, there surely are ways that we can disrupt paths to radicalization, to identify recruitment patterns and to provide metrics that allow us to measure the success of our counter-radicalization efforts,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said before the meeting began in California.

A task force will be created in the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to coordinate the government’s new effort. The State Department announced the creation of a center to respond to disinformation from extremist groups by highlighting their misdeeds and creating positive images of the West. [Continue reading…]

If one was to picture America as a complex filtration system with Washington DC at its core, the way this operates guarantees that by the time someone passes through the system’s many layers and reaches a position as an influential decision-maker, their psyche has been stripped of every last trace of imagination.

Picture the many meetings that must have taken place over recent months in which policymakers repeatedly said: in order to stop ISIS we need to improve the image of the West.

This proposition should have been met with howls of scorn and yet instead, multiple teams of straight-faced bureaucrats from multiple agencies nodded their heads in agreement.

At the same time, I greatly doubt anyone believes this kind of PR exercise will have any value whatsoever and yet the consensus of support derives from one fact: no one has come up with a better idea.

Better to do something worthless than to do nothing at all — so the thinking goes.

The term radicalization has been pathologized, thereby divorcing it from its psychological meaning. It’s viewed as a disease, with the implication that if the right steps are taken, the contagion can be controlled.

But to be radicalized is to rebel and anyone who has taken up such a position of defiance has, in the case of ISIS, already reached a conclusion about the West. Indeed, they have most likely reflected more deeply on the West than the majority of their generational counterparts who, being less likely to engage in cultural critiques of any kind, don’t have a particularly coherent view of the West — good or bad.

The problem here is not one if inadequate availability of positive images of the West.

Although it’s often said that this is an ideological struggle, ideology is I suspect of less significance than a core value: the willingness to die in the name of ones cause.

This isn’t a value that governments anywhere want to challenge because every state wants to be able to recruit citizens who are willing to die in defense of their country.

Most states don’t overtly recruit would-be martyrs and yet all states promote the idea that anyone who dies for their country has died in the name of a noble cause.

At the same time, this has become an increasingly ambiguous value as professionalized military forces promote their ability to minimize their own loses. They want their soldiers to remain willing to die and yet decreasingly fearful that they might face such a risk.

The religious zealot who is willing to die for what he believes in, will inevitably have a sense of superiority over the non-religious soldier who has submitted to the commands of the state rather than the command of God.

If Washington thinks it can steer ISIS recruits in a different direction, it’s because it sees this as a contest between the might of the United States and the wrong-headed ambitions of a cadre of hapless youth. But the contest inside the minds of these young people is between divine authority and human design. They inevitably side with God.

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  1. “Given the way the technology works these days, there surely are ways that we can disrupt paths to radicalization, to identify recruitment patterns and to provide metrics that allow us to measure the success of our counter-radicalization efforts…”

    This sounds like the mechanistic statement of a person with the kind of personality disorder that limits or even precludes awareness of what other people are like. Or perhaps Josh Earnest (as in, the importance of being…) is merely trying to use a certain vocabulary so as to appeal to the presumed personality type of those he is addressing? At any rate, I suspect this should be filed with ‘nation building’ as peak delusion — or peak PR. One recalls those pictures of strapping, camo-clad warriors with strange-looking weapons and stranger-looking devices attached to their helmets, standing among (and thereby winning the hearts and minds of) puzzled villagers. We come in peace!

    On the matter of the recruitment demographic, are we sure that zealotry is really the driving force at the cannon-fodder level? A lot of anecdotal evidence suggests that the big attraction is to rootless post-adolescents.

  2. Paul Woodward says:

    Those who have attempted to characterize the motives of ISIS recruits identify multiple types ranging from martyrdom to adventure, in addition to which there are huge differences deriving from the recruits’ place of origin — be that Iraq, Chechnya, France, or elsewhere.

    What I’m loosely labeling as zealotry is a concentration in passion and self-righteousness as someone transitions from a state of being in which they have no sense of direction, to one in which they have solidified their identity around a form of conviction. The content of that conviction is of secondary significance to the fact that such an individual now feels free from doubt.

    As for Earnest’s statement, I only wish a member of the press corp had been willing to put him on the spot and ask: “Can you speak more about the way technology works these days? Did you have something specific in mind, or were you just expressing faith in our own culture’s high priests?”

    If he actually believes what he said, he seems to think ISIS can be defeated with a few algorithms. I’m more inclined to think, though, that his attention was focused on packing the maximum number of buzzwords into a sentence with the fatuous expectation that this would impress his audience.