The Skeptics

Is the Social Media Battle Against ISIS Futile?

Much has been written, debated and discussed about how the West needs to do a better job of ‘messaging’ in its war against the Islamic State (ISIS). Many believe that ISIS produces effective and well-targeted messages via social media while the West, so far, has largely failed in this arena. The United States, the argument goes, has been ineffective at undercutting Islamist ideology because it has done a poor job ‘messaging.’ America’s failure to undercut terrorist outreach, however, has very little to do with the platform or with how messages are presented.

People around the world are rarely swayed one way or another based on which side produces the most effective copy, photos and videos and packages them the best on various social media platforms. Influence occurs when the message is considered legitimate and resonates with the target audience—and then is backed up by congruent action on the ground. Fail to produce a compelling narrative, or fail to act in accordance with that message, and you will influence no one. The current situation in Iraq, with the United States trying to convince Sunni Arabs to reject ISIS, is an excellent example of this dynamic.

The approximate eight million people of Iraq and Syria living under ISIS domination have been abused and have lost freedoms. Many have been executed for trifling reasons. According to a United Nations report, ISIS directly targets “civilians and civilian infrastructure” while performing “executions and other targeted killings of civilians, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual and physical violence perpetrated against women and children. . . ” Those millions of Muslims could fatally undermine ISIS if they rose up against them. Yet they don’t. Why?

One reason is that the government of Iraq has proven to be almost as bad to the civil population as has ISIS. According to former U.S. State Department official Peter Van Buren, “When ISIS first took control of Sunni areas in western Iraq, anger towards the Shia government in Baghdad caused many to see them as liberators.” “The Iraqi army,” he said, “had engaged in a multi-year campaign of beating, imprisoning, and arresting Sunnis, to the point where many felt that Baghdad was occupying, not governing.” Some Iraqi army officers don’t deny they target Sunnis in areas once controlled by ISIS.

In a Stability Journal article last year, one Iraqi commander admitted, “We have a big problem with distinction. We can’t trust people who did not leave after ISIS took control of their town.” The same article reported that a Kurdish commander fighting against ISIS “expressed concern about Arabs, ‘These are civilians who support terrorists. I don’t trust them. There are sleeper cells in those villages. If Daesh advances then those people will turn against us and come from behind.’” The Sunnis under ISIS rule are also fearful of the United States.

The UK’s Independent examined what life was like for those under ISIS domination. In their report, they interviewed Omar Abu Ali, a 45-year-old Sunni Arab farmer from al-Karmah, asking his views about U.S. and allied efforts to defeat ISIS. His response was telling. Omar told the Independent that “US air strikes and Iraqi army artillery ‘kill us along with ISIS fighters. There is no difference between what they do and the mass killings by ISIS.’ . . . He says the Americans, Iraqi government and ISIS have all brought disaster and lists the wars that have engulfed his home town in the past ten years. ‘All of them are killing us’ he says. ‘We have no friends.’”

Into this environment, senior U.S. government officials seek to effectively communicate American goals and objectives to the people of the region in an attempt to gain their support. Last Friday the U.S. State Department announced it had created a new organization that centralizes U.S. anti-ISIS messaging under an organization called the Center for Global Engagement.

The group will focus “on empowering and enabling partners, governmental and non-governmental, who are able to speak out against [violent extremist] groups and provide an alternative to ISIL’s nihilistic vision. To that end, the center will offer services ranging from planning thematic social media campaigns to providing factual information that counters-disinformation to building capacity for third parties to effectively utilize social media to research and evaluation.”

Also on Friday, Defense One reported that the President “and various high-ranking members of the national security establishment met with representatives from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other Internet powerhouses to discuss how the United States can fight ISIS messaging via social media.”