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What ISIS is Teaching the West About Social Media

The Islamic State (Daesh) was initially written off by numerous governments as a disparate group of lunatics with little direction or focus, who relied on a range of illegal activities for their financial and military livelihood. That characterization stands at odds with what Daesh has morphed into — an increasingly sophisticated organization that, far from being on the verge of extinction, is growing in terms of numbers, influence, and territory. A significant reason for its expansion is its mastery of messaging through the use of social media.

What started as an adept approach using social media has turned into a phenomenon, as Daesh demonstrates its prowess in attracting new recruits through the production of slick videos with a variety of themes. In the process, Daesh has become skilled at integrating dichotomies to broaden its appeal, for example, portraying itself as both “ruthless killers” but also being “just like everyone else.” Its cutting edge approach to creating well-choreographed state-of-the-art videos with sophisticated messaging makes the West’s response look sophomoric and lame by comparison.

Daesh first targeted potential recruits in the Muslim world by emphasizing its anti-establishment and conservative credentials, which had instant appeal to young men who were poor, disenfranchised and angry.

The steady flow of gruesome decapitation videos drew fighters from across the Muslim world. Daesh used brutality and fear as a form of seduction, appealing to a sense of individualism while glamorizing death and martyrdom. For young men living on the margins of society, with no job and little or nothing to lose, joining Daesh gave their lives meaning and enabled them to fight their perceived oppressors.

The organization has gradually shifted both the focus of its targeted recruits and its messaging in order to draw in a larger pool of devotees. Its more recent videos have changed the focus away from the ‘unfamiliar,’ individualism, and anonymity toward themes that are more instantly alluring to a broader range of people, with a more personal flare. For example, the latest round of videos shows Daesh members enjoying themselves at a swimming pool, gathered around a fancy car, eating delicious looking food, and portraying themselves as hedonists.

This is odd, as it stands in such dramatic contrast to Daesh’s original portrayal of itself as highly conservative and anti-materialistic. New recruits are likely to be grossly disappointed when they learn that joining Daesh does not in fact translate into sipping champagne by the pool. A number of stories have emerged of recent recruits finding Daesh distasteful and wanting to escape, only to be held prisoner, tortured, or killed. This ‘Daesh lite’ approach may end up backfiring.

The mystery surrounding who Daesh actually is also is being used by the organization to enhance its perceived appeal. Joining a mysterious organization and not knowing the members’ identities is undoubtedly also part of the attraction for some of the recruits — in the quest to be different and do something unusual with unknown people in an unknown place. Part of Daesh’s ability to project an aura of power is to be associated with so many unknown unknowns.

The dual appeal of individualism while being part of a larger group gives Daesh the ability to manipulate peer pressure, especially among younger recruits, as an incentive to become part of ‘the cause.’ As more people from a more diverse range of countries join the ranks of Daesh, the group’s ‘cheerleaders’ are increasing exponentially. The western media is, ironically, greatly assisting the cause by dutifully broadcasting Daesh’s videos to its own brethren — ironically, including such outlets as Fox News — generating some unlikely new devotees. This is part of what accounts for so many of the young westerners seeking to join the organization. If the western media did not play along, many of these western recruits may not even know what Daesh is. Doing so is like giving an unintended seal of approval for those who do not know better. When will western news organizations stop this practice?

The greatest threat to western countries now comes from home grown terrorists, either returning from the Daesh front lines, or sympathizers who never left home. Some of Daesh’s videos and social media are specifically intended to influence these individuals, urging them to wage jihad at home. While governments can monitor their citizen’s online presence, they cannot read their minds or control their actions. The recent attacks in Paris and Tunis are good examples of why this risk is growing, and why all governments should be concerned. It may not be too long before westerners begin to fear going to the malls.

Perhaps western governments in particular should take a page out of the Daesh playbook and start to produce videos with similar appeal — by directly countering the variety of messages being produced by Daesh, in a similarly slick and sophisticated manner. As long as Daesh has the upper hand in the social media arena, it will not matter how much military might is devoted to their defeat, because the recruits will continue to line up to join them.

This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.