Following the San Bernardino shooting, the power wielded online by Islamic State has moved to the centre of public debate. The apparent role of the internet in radicalising a couple until they were willing to commit mass murder has caused many to question whether enough is being done. Google's Eric Schmidt has appealed to the technology companies to do more. Hillary Clinton has called for greater online censorship. Donald Trump called on Bill Gates to turn the internet off. We need a strategy.
Islamic State (IS) is well known for highly effective marketing and branding strategies. The grainy footage once produced by Al Qaeda has long been surpassed by the high definition videos, images and audio disseminated by the various media arms of IS, and their global network of online sympathisers. Through its prolific and varied propaganda, IS has succeeded in developing a fluid brand which presents new challenges for the global counter-radicalisation efforts.
When we think of Islamic State material, the image is one of barbarism and brutality. Over the past year, we have witnessed a steadily growing creative depravity as Islamic State propagandists have dreamed up ever more horrific ways of torturing and executing their captives. This escalating brutality had a clear purpose: to keep them on the front of the Western papers, and Western news outlets were quick to oblige. But recently, the narrative has shifted to portray another reality: a utopian society where everyone is provided for and law and order are instituted.
The online propaganda depicts souks full of fresh produce, vivid landscapes, and social gatherings. This has been combined with efforts to portray local governance initiatives including the provision of healthcare and education. Challenging the war-torn image predominant in the Western media, IS presents the caliphate as a viable alternative to the governance of modern nation states. Making potential recruits feel that life in Syria does not differ significantly from that in the West (except of course being the only truly 'Islamic' alternative) is an effective method of encouraging people to join.
This shift in the nature of their propaganda represents a broader change in the tactics of the recruiters. Islamic State recognises that the narrative of terror is not enough as the caliphate must also embody hope - it is not just a question of escaping from the West, but one of escaping to paradise. Ensuring the continuation of the caliphate requires raising the next generation of fighters - a task which makes women crucial agents of state-building. This is why women have become increasingly targeted in IS propaganda. Through their roles as wives and mothers, women are invited to partake in the expansion and consolidation of the caliphate.
The new challenge for us is to move beyond condemning atrocities. How should we respond if and when sympathisers begin viewing the caliphate as a legitimate alternative to Western governance? A national campaign was launched by the police in April issuing a travel warning and a booklet providing facts on Syria. Through emphasising the government policy on hostage situations and the possibility of prosecution upon return, the booklet aims to provoke fear. Yet people who consider leaving to Syria are unlikely to acknowledge government warnings, and such efforts may even provoke a defensive response. It then becomes highly questionable whether mere fact provision can effectively influence behaviour.
Although the fact-based attempts promoting the truth about IS often reach a considerable audience, they are unlikely to parallel the success of the videos released by IS itself. The inability to match the IS propaganda machinery constantly producing and disseminating new content is one of the key shortcomings of our strategy. It is also the quality of our efforts - which as Charlie Winter has pointed out are merely responsive - that is lacking. The government insists on telling people what they should not do, but is yet to offer an alternative.
Criticising is always easier than proposing alternatives - but they do exist. Charlie Winter and Peter Pomerantsev among others have suggested that the most effective actors in countering propaganda are likely to be spontaneous civic initiatives which, being created by the people for the people, have a greater potential to reach wider audiences. Although a widely approved suggestion, it is yet to be sufficiently put into practice. Online trends, however, are not always spontaneous. They can be produced. And if a marketing agency can artificially launch a viral trend, this may be something to invest in. The government's role should then be to direct funds into training people in the technical skills needed to stage more effective online campaigns.
Srdja Popovic has suggested that humour can be utilised in making the true nature of IS widely known. In this vein, users of the online community 4chan recently sought to undermine IS by superimposing images of bath ducks onto pictures of the fighters and circulating them in social media. Although the aim was to ridicule IS, much of the online discussion has derided Islam in general. A similar problem has occurred with other civil initiatives, such as the Twitter campaign #askislamicstate. The question then remains whether these social media campaigns can be effective when the narrative they put forward appears simplistic. While particular efforts should be made to ensure that future campaigns distinguish IS ideology from the core tenets of Islam, we must find engaging ways of doing this. This presents a new challenge for civic campaigners Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
Ultimately, we must create a narrative which gives people at risk of radicalisation a sense of purpose so they do not feel the need to seek it from Islamic State. Part of this is making sure people have a platform to discuss their views. Denying this space and forcing people underground is likely to add onto the feeling of alienation, and increase the appeal of radical ideologies. To successfully counter the propaganda, government funds would be effectively spent in training individuals to generate successful campaigns online and allowing them the space to carry them out. While the effectiveness of these campaigns could be improved through the usage of humour, simplistic mockery of Islam is not enough. We must deconstruct the image of stern believers and show IS for what they are: a corrupt, power-hungry organisation taking advantage of people's misery.