Countering the Islamic State: War in the Digital Age

by aupara123 on April 27, 2016 - 9:24pm

The Islamic State group (IS) has become a significant threat with its barbaric actions in the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, as well as the terrorist strikes it carried out worldwide. The article “Fight against ISIS reveals power of social media,” by Javier Lesaca, highlights the extensive use of social media by the IS group to perpetrate radicalization and gain momentum. In this digital age, the use of social media has become a powerful means to obtain “mass participation” and “peer coordination”, as described by Jeremy Heimans in the Ted Talk “What New Power Looks Like”. Lesaca’s article also describes the attempts made by world powers to counter this digital offense, with mixed results. Valuable lessons have been learnt on how to leverage this “new power”.
Lesaca indicates that the IS group has established an “audiovisual strategy” through social media to help in the radicalization and the call-to-action of terrorists. Although its real contribution is difficult to establish, there is substantive evidence to believe that the audiovisual communications used by IS are likely linked with the terrorist strikes.
Russia has received the most threats by IS through social media, exceeding 25 in two years. France comes in second with nearly 20 for the same period. Unfortunately, recent events have shown that threats can be real. Two weeks before the Paris attacks, IS had released a video inciting French people to join its group. A month prior the June 2015 Lyon attack, committed by an IS-inspired “lone wolf”, an IS video on social media was motivating French people to carry out terrorist acts. Similarly, the Charlie Hebdo attack was preceded by an IS video casting young French nationals motivating their peers to join the terrorist organization.
The power of social media must not be underestimated. On the contrary, it should be understood, tamed and exploited to counter the threat of the elaborate strategy developed by IS. As the popular adage states, "The best defense is a good offense." World powers have attempted, for over two years, to reverse the gains made by IS on the web. The results have generally lacked effectiveness. The Department of State has released over 300 videos on YouTube to counter IS threat – the most successful had a mere 120,000 views. The Department of State appeared to use “new power” in an “old” approach, making it less effective. However, in October 2015, a military operation was conducted to free 70 Kurdish prisoners from the IS group in Iraq. The US-led rescue mission was filmed from a participating Kurdish soldier’s helmet camera. The video was leaked on social media shortly after the operation, and rapidly became viral, exceeding 1.2 million views in barely five days. It represented a tenfold improvement over the Department of State’s most viewed video.
The results from this leaked footage provided valuable information in establishing a meaningful strategy towards countering the threat in social media as well as in influencing public opinion. The Kurdish video contained four key elements: it was brief, contained distressing images, had a “cultural resonance from action films”, and was genuine and poignant. Six Twitter accounts, destined to counter IS on social media, were used to boost the propagation by publishing 843 tweets in a single week, with the video finding its way to over 700,000 Twitter users. It also included the Arabic hashtags utilized by IS. Shortly after, a separate, brief and genuine testimonial from the rescued Kurds was published in Arabic – the message was persuasive as it was the first opportunity where Arabs and Muslims communicated publicly the horrors committed by IS and their appreciation towards the US Army.
The Kurdish campaign on social media revealed four important lessons. Military missions against IS should be filmed such to have audiovisual content to be uploaded to social networks; the “counter-narrative campaigns” must be based on genuine testimonials from Arabs and Muslims who can convey the atrocities originating from IS; the campaigns must be spread using non-governmental mediums; and audiovisual material containing real images of counter-terrorist missions are of significant appeal.
In this digital era, the way a message is communicated is as important as the news itself. The academic field of journalism, media studies and communication is entirely relevant to the terrorist threat and the battle against IS, and will be covered in an upcoming post related to IS. The fight needs to be on multiple fronts, using “old” and “new power”. The article from Javier Lesaca shows the necessity of harnessing communication and social media. The military operations are and should remain primarily founded on the “old power”, with its “leader-driven” operations. On the front of social media however, a shift to the use of “new power” must be made as it can be highly effective with its “transparent”, “participative” and “more affiliative” approach. This way, the growing threat of terrorism can be defeated.

Works cited
"What New Power Looks like." Jeremy Heimans:. Ted Talks, June 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Lesaca, Javier. "Fight against ISIS Reveals Power of Social Media." The Brookings Institution. N.p., 19 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.