On February 5, 2016, Twitter announced it would increase the size of its content-review teams and deploy new software to help identify Islamic State supporters even before they break the terms of service by posting pro-Islamic State (IS) material. While Twitter’s increased efforts are necessary, they are not sufficient to address the U.S. government’s poor performance on the Twitter battlefield. As one expert observed in a July 2015 report, “So far, most of our attempts to meaningfully mitigate [the Islamic State’s] ability to globally engage have been left floundering.” The State Department’s recent organizational overhaul acknowledges frustration with existing counter-narrative efforts, particularly over social media. Notably, the Obama Administration ordered a similar overhaul a year ago, in response to the Islamic State’s resilient social media presence. Bureaucracies, particularly large government ones, are not known for their agility. What can the U.S. learn from the Islamic State’s narrative on Twitter during the first few weeks of 2016?
An analysis of sixty-five Twitter posts from January 1-16, 2016, all allegedly originating from within Syria, reveals four broad themes that deserve close attention.
1) Strength of the military campaigns (victory, targeting, advanced weapons built in the caliphate, spoils gained)
2) A prosperous place (pictures of nature, orderly streets, filled markets)
3) Piety in the actions of the people of the caliphate (mercy, justice, religiosity)
4) Battle against God’s enemies (Nusayris, a derogatory term for the regime’s Alawite sect; apostate Kurds; atheists; reports of sentries on the frontier; emotive suicide missions)
These themes represent the four corners of a window, enabling us to understand how the Islamic State views itself and the broader struggle for Syria. The United States has not effectively used Twitter to exploit the weaknesses of IS claims of military strength and the prosperity of the caliphate, which should be a crucial part of the broader attempt to reduce IS local and global appeal. It is these two points on which this article will primarily focus.
Conversely, the Islamic State’s portrayal of its religiosity and its fight against the enemies of Syrian Sunnis are more difficult to directly undermine on social media. Perceptions of U.S. irreligiosity, its Christian heritage and a thawing relationship with Iran problematize American attempts to address Sunni religious expression using Twitter. However, understanding these latter themes is crucial to other U.S. efforts, such as addressing deep Sunni grievances within the framework of a future political transition and in strengthening alternative Sunni forces—not just Kurds.
Exploiting Existing Vulnerabilities
The United States has spent far more time agonizing over counter-messaging strategy than engaging meaningfully to exploit the Islamic State’s weaknesses on social media. Whether counter-messaging is capable of delivering results or not, the analysis reveals the United States missed opportunities to exploit Islamic State losses. Events on the ground during the period of analysis demonstrate the Islamic State’s narrative of victory and strength was not consistent with reality. The Islamic State posted reports of victorious battles against regime and Kurdish forces, including conspicuous pictures of uniformed IS forces firing tanks, heavy artillery, rockets and machine guns. Their reports also featured grisly pictures and descriptions of dead enemies, a video of a newly-developed sniper rifle along with tales of its success in action against the regime, and video of spoils taken in new battles. In truth, the Islamic State had a net loss of territory during the period. As an example of the incongruity, on January 13, 2016, regime and Syrian rebel forces made significant territorial gains against the Islamic State in northern Syria, where the Islamic State lost the towns of Baghidin, Khalfatli, Ayn Al Bayda, Surayb and A’ran. On the same day, the Islamic State posted its account of its “pounding” of regime and Hezbollah positions outside Palmyra. No external reporting supported the Islamic State’s claim. And the Islamic State simply ignored battles in which they lost significant territory, emphasizing other elements of its struggle, featuring its new sniper rifle, activity of an air defense company, suicide missions, and a 14-minute video about a new military offensive in Deir Az Zur (on the other side of their territory in Syria). In other cases, the Islamic State reported the results of actual fighting, but where the Islamic State lost ground, its Twitter posts continued the narrative of strength and did not depict any losses.
By comparison, consider Soviet propaganda from the early stages of Operation Barbarossa (June-November 1941), when the Nazis were making huge gains in territory. The Soviet pattern was to delay the acknowledgement of losses and then emphasize enemy losses even when recognizing its own defeat. It became hard for the Soviet regime to continue to lie about the direction of the war while the Germans were making obvious gains within Soviet territory. In facing an existential threat, sustaining Soviet morale through propaganda and terror was a matter of survival. Similarly, the Islamic State has a clear incentive to continue its narrative of victory and strength. That it made no mention of territory lost in the first two weeks of January, nor acknowledged significant damage from coalition airstrikes that averaged six per day during that period, shows the strategic importance of maintaining its strength narrative, regardless of its truth.
A Prosperous Place
Another theme of the Islamic State’s narrative during the first two weeks of January is that it has created a prosperous place. Thirteen out of the sixty-five Twitter posts, 20 percent of the textual content show nature, orderly streets, filled markets or social services. The centrality of this theme is consistent with previous studies. While the representation of the caliphate as a prosperous place is not generally appreciated by Western audiences, it is crucial to an organization that markets itself as the guardian of God’s people, the people of the caliphate. Not only does it help the Islamic State attract sympathetic Muslims to its cause, but it also shows that, compared to competing jihadi movements, the Islamic State can deliver a better life to the families of fighters and to those who support the mujahideen. As Charlie Winter pointed out in his comprehensive work on the Islamic State’s messaging, “With its ‘caliphate’ narrative as a unique selling point, the group is able to decry the intransigence of its jihadist rivals, pick holes in their respective programmes, and claim that Islamic State alone is legitimate in the eyes of God.” The success of the Islamic State as a caliphate is a key component of its meta-narrative of restoring the greatness of Islam, whose previous caliphates were dominant world powers between the eighth and thirteenth centuries.
Here again, the United States has an opportunity to highlight and exploit significant gaps between message and reality, as the Islamic State’s social contract is increasingly stressed by the declining benefits provided to its citizenry. Groups like “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” have exposed human rights abuses within Raqqa and Syria more broadly, drawing attention to the terror and humiliation of the caliphate’s residents. Until recently, however, the social contract under the Islamic State appeared better than other alternatives within Syria, since while the Islamic State may have restricted personal freedoms it was also less corrupt and inept than Assad or the Free Syrian Army. As the Islamic State’s expansion stalled, however, and international efforts to interdict cash flow increased, the heavy hand of IS has become heavier, reaching deeper into the pockets of its constituents, conscripting fighters, and struggling to deal with rampant poverty. Even its foot soldiers were forced to take a 50 percent pay cut at the end of 2015. The Islamic State has begun to look and act like previous totalitarian regimes.
Countering the Islamic State Narrative
The United States has the chance to exploit clear inconsistencies in the Islamic State’s narrative. The Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve tweets its post-strike information, but during the period analysis it released relatively few photos and videos, and even fewer in Arabic. Simply tweeting pictorial reports and videos in Arabic that highlight Islamic State losses could serve as a powerful information weapon when propagated through hashtags and retweets by Arab news sources. This effort could be overseen by the State Department’s new Center for Global Engagement, but better still by contracted experts in social media exploitation. Undermining the Islamic State’s military strength narrative would likely hurt its credibility with its local population and reduce its appeal to fence-sitters in Syria and elsewhere, further eroding its momentum.
A revived U.S. information campaign should also exploit fissures in the Islamic State social contract, highlighting reports of disparities in wealth between foreign fighters and locals, the remaining misery of the poor, and the heavy-handed tactics for IS taxation and conscription in places like Deir Az Zur. The approach should build on existing efforts by Syrian activists, include Arabic interviews with returning fighters and fleeing refugees, and employ metadata software to inform targeted messaging strategies.
Paradoxically, the U.S. information war should depend on transparency, demonstrating that our values are better by consistently reporting the truth, even if it means describing U.S. setbacks. While there is no counter-messaging panacea for reversing Islamic State dominance on Twitter, these efforts would abate its domestic and global appeal over time. Notably, challenging the IS narrative will not be enough to defeat their ideology. The United States should expect that when pressured, the Islamic State will shift to a narrative focusing on the fulfillment of prophesied defeats preceding the return of the Mahdi and their final consolation, as warned by Graeme Wood. While this shift could help the Islamic State to survive as an ideology, it certainly would make them a less attractive cause for fence-sitters.