What Happens When ISIS Becomes an Online Caliphate?

Members of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division are photographed with an Islamic State flag, claimed after fighting with Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

After the fall of Mosul, devising effective ways to combat Islamic State propaganda will be critically important.

Behavioral and social-science studies, especially from the field of behavioral economics, which is aimed at understanding how humans tend to interpret information and how, in turn, that informs their decisionmaking process.

• Field interviews with non-state and state practitioners to draw on their practical experiences.

• The impact of online disengagement strategies and disruption strategies as well as offline organizational dynamics on propaganda output.

• In-depth primary source analyses of violent-extremist propaganda messaging and doctrine.

The latter was particularly important given the raison d'être of the strategic framework is to undermine the strengths and exploit the weaknesses of violent-extremist propaganda. After all, violent-extremist propaganda seeks to shape the perceptions and polarize the support of its audiences. It achieves this by generating self-reinforcing and compounding cycles of logic via the “linkages” its messages draw between carefully selected strategic factors (e.g. Islamic State’s actions) and psychosocial dynamics (e.g. identity, solution and crisis constructs) using a mix of pragmatic- and identity-choice appeals (illustrated here). Ultimately, the Islamic State uses propaganda to provide audiences with a competitive system of meaning (i.e. a lens through which to perceive the world) that is designed to drag supporters deeper into its propaganda web.

The linkage-based approach focuses on the design and deployment of messages that attack the linkages at the heart of violent-extremist propaganda via two mutually reinforcing lines of effort. Tier 1 messages seek to dissolve the violent-extremist “system of meaning” by attacking those aforementioned linkages and offering alternative narratives. The primary audiences for Tier 1 messaging ranges from those already against violent extremists to those who may be susceptible to their propaganda. Tier 2 messaging targets those who may tacitly or actively support violent extremists with a fusion of network-disruption actions and disengagement messaging. The strategy’s message design matrix offers practitioners a toolkit of interlinked pragmatic- and identity-choice—as well as offensive and defensive—messaging themes. The resulting strategic framework is comprehensive and flexible with potential applications as a guide for building a strategic-communication plan from scratch or enhancing ongoing plans. It also offers practitioners a means to measure the comprehensiveness of a communication campaign’s messaging output and medium utility.

The research that underpins this strategy challenges several leading trends in the field of thinking and practice. First, the linkage-based approach offers an alternative to ideology-centric strategies that, despite dominating the field, research suggests are rarely effective and potentially counterproductive. Second, the research underpinning the strategy indicates that prioritizing counter-narratives (i.e. defensive messaging deployed in response to adversary messages) is misguided. Historical analysis demonstrates that ascendancy in the information theater follows when offensive messaging (i.e. messaging designed to elicit a response from adversaries) outweighs defensive messaging across a campaign.