The War of the Tweets: On Counter-Messaging ISIS

06/02/2015 06:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

Co-authored by Katrzyna Jasko and David Webber, University of Maryland

Hardly anyone continues to believe these days that Islamist militancy can be defeated by military means alone, or doubts the need to fight for the hearts and minds of potential recruits to extremism. The big questions are whether this battle can be won, and what concrete activities would achieve this.

A major dimension of the struggle is communication, carried to great effect by Twitter and other social media platforms. ISIS, for example, is conducting a relentless outreach campaign to potential recruits. Judging from the continually swelling flow of volunteers to its ranks, these efforts are highly successful.

The recent ISIS success in capturing the city of Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province and Palmyra in Syria attests to its ability to motivate people to die on its behalf and produce the kind of dedication and resolve that the opposing U.S.-backed Iraqi forces or Bashir al Assad's military so patently lack.

The acute need to respond to ISIS's massive recruitment propaganda hasn't been lost on the U.S. government. That job was assigned to the Department of State, whose Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) launched several media campaigns aimed at reducing the luster of ISIS and dissuading potential recruits from joining it. Despite well-intentioned efforts, however, and considerable investment of time and resources, these attempts recently came under substantial criticism.

One CSCC campaign essentially mocked ISIS ("Welcome to ISIS Land") and disdainfully presented the atrocities and brutality that are the ISIS hallmark. However, the mockery only invited a similar response by ISIS media ("Run do not Walk to U.S. Terrorist State"). The "ISIS Land" video was pronounced a failure and ultimately canned. Earlier, in 2013, the CSCC initiated an English-language campaign titled "Think again, turn away," which contradicted ISIS claims of strength and invincibility, and presented ISIS atrocities and mistreatment of women, among others.

Of course, factual campaigns can only be as effective as are supportive facts on the ground. In light of the recent ISIS successes, "facts" that proclaim its failures will be easily dismissed as biased falsehoods. Moreover, the emphasis on brutality and atrocities reflects a strictly Western perspective, preaching to the choir, as it were. It may not deter individuals who admire power and are eager to bet on the "strong horse," as Osama bin Laden once put it.

The various State Department efforts share a common problem: A seeming lack of a guiding framework to afford a coherent messaging strategy. Instead, campaigns seem to be launched on the basis of intuitive hunches devoid of solid grounding in the science of radicalization. Such science exists, in fact, and should be used to good advantage.

The science suggests that the appeal of violent extremism draws on three factors, the "three N's" of radicalization: The psychological Need that extremism serves, the Narrative that promises its gratification, and the social Networks that lend credence to the narrative.

Research suggests that the overriding appeal of violent extremism is rooted in the human need to feel significant, to matter in one's own eyes and those of significant others. For young Muslims lacking clear prospects for the future and facing degradation in the present, the opportunity to view themselves as heroes or martyrs is too alluring to pass up.

These potential recruits already imagine themselves on dust-covered Humvees racing to the front, hair blowing in the wind, guns in hand, adored by women, envied by men, crowned by glory and clad in glamor. That is the beguiling image that ISIS offers; tarnishing its appeal without causing blow back is the tall order that effective counter messaging must accomplish.

By projecting the image of an unstoppable power on the march to inevitable victory, ISIS has managed to offer a credible path to significance to those who care to join. Its brutality, its atrocities, its cruelty only add to the sense of awe. Rather than constituting a turnoff, the violence fuels the desire to identify with the aggressor and bask in its glory.

Effective counter messaging must find alternative routes to glamor that are as significance-bestowing as power and domination. This isn't easy, to be sure, and certainly will not be accomplished by caricaturing ISIS, nor by calling its adherents stupid or misguided. As we have seen time and again, the mocking approach will only raise the ire of young Muslims. It will increase their readiness to fight and avenge the affronts they see heaped upon Islam.

ISIS manages to legitimize mayhem and brutality through a narrative that references values so sacred that their defense warrants the ultimate sacrifice and bestows untold glory and significance on their champions. Any counter-narrative that aims to prevent radicalization must be similarly phrased in ideological terms. As research shows, ideals can only be effectively counteracted by other ideals, sacred values by other sacred values, and significance bestowing actions only by other equally or greater self-enhancing actions.

Finally, the need fulfilling narrative derives its credibility and authority from social networks of significant others within which potential recruits are embedded. This well-established fact has a number of important implications.

For one, the source of the messaging should be a bona fide part of that network. To young Muslim recruits, messages originating in the U.S. Department of State, for example, are likely to have little, if not negative, credibility. On the other hand, messages from returning fighters, disenchanted with what they found, or from attractive members of the opposite sex who denigrate what ISIS stands for may carry considerable authority and persuasive power.

Thus, effective messaging campaigns must have realistic goals and be based on a thorough understanding of the psychology of radicalization. This is best achieved by putting together a team of social scientists with extensive background in the topic alongside social media experts, copywriters and other specialists to forge the best messaging effort possible under the circumstances. These efforts should be systematically evaluated for effectiveness.

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect research to pinpoint whether any given message prompted someone committed to joining the Islamist fight to relinquish their plans. We don't have sufficient access to potential ISIS recruits to find out. Still, evaluation research can accomplish a great deal. Pilot studies can systematically establish what kind of reaction a given message will evoke. Focus groups, experimental studies, etc. could "test the waters" of a prospective messaging campaign and tweak it for maximal effect.

During the Second World War, the U.S. military recruited the very best social scientists in the country to carry out a massive psychological warfare campaign against the Nazi propaganda machine. Their participation not only enhanced the effectiveness of American messaging, but also produced a wealth of relevant knowledge that could be useful now.

The danger that ISIS poses and its success at getting thousands to radicalize suggests the urgency of smart, serious counter messaging this time, as well. The effort requires planning, funding and resources. But that cost is small compared to allowing ISIS messages to go without an effective challenge.