Let’s examine the prevailing media narrative that the United States is “losing the digital war” with ISIL, also known as Daesh (as it’s called in the Muslim world) or the Islamic State (as it’s ordinarily referred to in The Post). The terrorists’ videos of ghoulish beheadings and slow-motion executions have earned them single-digit approval among Muslims. Only 1 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide support their actions, while only about 5 percent support their goals. That’s not trivial, but it’s not exactly winning, either.
Next, look at what media folks call “share.” There were about 230,000 mentions of the group across various social media platforms on an average day last year. That may sound like a lot — but if you do social media mapping, that amount of content would be about the size of a ping-pong ball relative to a baseball-size figure for the band One Direction, which averaged about 560,000 mentions on the same platforms. Discussion of soccer — at about 1.5 million mentions — would be, well, a soccer ball. Not a lot of share for ISIL. And according to the government’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, more than half of those ISIL mentions are negative. In other words, there is more anti-ISIL content on social media than pro-ISIL content. And if you look at the trend line, the anti-ISIL content is growing. That’s hardly winning.
Analysts believe that about 500 to 2,000 dedicated ISIL fanboys (call them Hashtag Jihadis) are stirring up the traffic on social media and propagating most of the links. A Brookings Institution study describes them as “a relatively small group of hyperactive users.” Most of them are in ISIL-controlled areas in Iraq and Syria.
The truth is, ISIL is a niche brand that figured out how to get a mass audience. In fact, it’s Western media that made it mass. ISIL aims to frighten the West by using the “shock and awe” of graphic medieval violence. It has done pretty well there. But ISIL’s bigger priority is luring foreign fighters to the kinetic battlefield. The roughly 20,000 foreign fighters it has recruited is about .001 percent of the Muslim population — that’s one one-thousandth of 1 percent. An ability to reach even half of 1 percent — that is, 0.5 percent — of the Muslim world gets them an audience of 8 million potential recruits. Not insignificant.
The great misconception in this information battle is that ISIL’s sophisticated use of social media is somehow luring young men who would otherwise remain at home with their families, playing video games. Is it ISIL’s stylized violence and calls to purity that motivate potential recruits, or is it frustration, chronic unemployment, lack of education and a life with few outlets for free expression? Let’s be clear: ISIL is cynically exploiting a vast, existing market, not creating a new one.
The message that ISIL peddles via social media is seductive because these young men are searching for meaning and purpose in their lives. The content that is directed toward them is often designed to seem noble, heroic and altruistic. One recent recruitment video features a travelogue of smiling fighters tousling the hair of young children, markets brimming with fruit and vegetables, and orderly streets full of people going about their business. ISIL also preys on insecurity and the gnawing question of “Am I Muslim enough?” When I met with Jordan’s information minister a while back, he told me: “The Arab culture of shame and honor contributes to the appeal of ISIL, which portrays its cause as a noble and heroic journey and the fulfillment of the search for honor and meaning.”
Over the past year, we’ve learned a great deal about the most effective ways to respond to ISIL’s messaging and how to target the audiences that are most vulnerable to it.
Let’s talk first about the small audience of potential fighters. The most powerful countermessages are fact-based ones that debunk the idealized portrayal of “the caliphate,” sowing doubt and anxiety. A lot of intercepted e-mails from foreign fighters show them dwelling on their disappointments. They express disillusionment that the caliphate is not well run. They experience discrimination. Some complain about having to clean toilets. Most quickly realize that they won’t get paid, that they won’t find a wife — local families reject foreign fighters’ marriage proposals — and that their families at home will suffer. And worst of all for these Hashtag Jihadis, the caliphate has limited Internet access. We emphasize all of these things.
Reaching the broader audience of Muslims worldwide is just as vital. Together with our allies, we are puncturing ISIL’s myths through targeted, locally tailored social media campaigns. We are also standing up dedicated information centers in the Muslim world that will counteract ISIL’s messaging and provide a positive alternative. In early July, I traveled to Abu Dhabi to open the Sawab Center (“Sawab” means “the right path” in Arabic), a joint project of the United States and the United Arab Emirates. Staffed by media and technology experts from both countries, it’s the first communication hub devoted to creating Arabic and English-language content that directly challenges ISIL and the destructive vision it propagates while offering more constructive, compelling alternatives.
As President Obama said recently, “Ideologies are not defeated with guns. They’re defeated by better ideas.” In this contest of ideas, we have numbers on our side: the hundreds of millions of Muslims who reject ISIL and all that it stands for. With the support of the United States and our partners in the Middle East, more and more of these people are making their voices heard. When it comes to the information war, we are gaining ground and momentum.
Richard Stengel is U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.