MRBlog | ISIS and the US Government: The Propaganda War

Screenshot from "Welcome to ISIS Land"
Screenshot from “Welcome to ISIS Land”

By Thomas J. Whitley

In late August of last year the U.S. State Department released a video on YouTube called “Welcome to ISIS Land” (Warning: video contains graphic content). The video was one of the latest attempts to counter ISIS’ well-oiled propaganda machine. It was a shift away from earlier messaging attempts by the State Department to produce more public campaigns. This new venture, produced by the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), instead was aimed at the small fraction of people who may be find ISIS’ brand of Islam appealing and may be inclined to join ISIS. The repeal of the Smith-Mundt Act in 2013 helped to pave the way for English language material like this.

The video is sarcastic in tone, juxtaposing images cribbed from ISIS’ own videos with sarcastic English text that attempted to expose ISIS’ hypocrisy. Though it has had over 850,000 views since it was posted (by far the best of any such video produced by the State Department), its success, or lack thereof, remains unclear. Has anyone from the small target audience actually seen the video and decided not to join ISIS? As Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked, “If we can’t measure the impact of what we’re doing, how do we prove that it’s effective?”

Of course the same can be asked of every marketing campaign. Proving effectiveness is notoriously difficult. There is a lot that can be learned, though, from recent work being done in marketing toward more niche-based and localized marketing as compared with “big idea” marketing. While marketing greats like David Ogilvy and Paul Rand were proponents of the “big idea,” the rise and ubiquity of social media has shifted the thinking of some marketers. The Obama campaign used a hyper-local strategy to great effect in the 2008 and 2012 elections. But both, as Sam Harrelson has argued on Twitter (and in countless emails and conversations with me) are necessary. The hyper-local campaign can easily fragment a message.  There is some concern that this may happen to Hillary Clinton’s current presidential campaign. What is more, most of the most successful marketing campaigns have employed “big ideas.” (You can read more about what successful “big idea” marketing looks like in this report by the Millward Brown agency.)

The question of effectiveness still remains, though. Richard Stengel, the former managing editor of Time magazine, was brought in as the new head of the CSCC by John Kerry. Stengel sees the previous efforts of the CSCC as ineffective and as producing the opposite of the desired effect, citing the “backfire effect”:

the backfire effect: when you try to disabuse somebody who has a strongly held belief, more often than not it makes their belief even stronger.

Stengel may be right here (we’ve seen this with the climate change and anti-vaccination debates in this country), but if he is, I think it is on a much larger scale. It is not just that a sarcastic tone may be the wrong approach to take with someone you’re trying to convince to see the world your way, but that the larger problem may be that the U.S. State Department is producing this type of content in the first place. Information that is clearly intended to upend a closely held belief will almost always be disregarded. How those in the government don’t realize that this too will be seen as propaganda, even by those who are not ready to pack up and fly to “ISIS Land,” is beyond me. Instead, the covert work being done by the CIA and other groups to produce content and to counter certain messages in chat rooms and on Twitter seems to me to be more effective.

The marketing strategy here is to get “influencers” to naturally and realistically spread your messaging/propaganda through their regular channels. The Edward Snowden leaks revealed that the CIA is already engaged in this sort of activity. Anything that comes from the U.S. State Department (and includes their seal at the end of the video!) is not going to be perceived as trustworthy to the target group. And while these “influencers” may be denounced as shills, they have a much higher likelihood of being given a hearing than does the State Department.

It should be said that the U.S. government has rightly recognized this as a battle over narratives (I’ve written about Obama’s recognition of this before). But they seem to be losing this battle because they are not fighting the same way or on the same field as their opponents.

The State Department recently launched a new entity, the Information Coordination Cell, which plans to enlist U.S. embassies, military leaders and regional allies in a global messaging campaign to discredit groups such as the Islamic State.

The strategy is shifting back to broad public messaging coming from the U.S. and their allies, a strategy that has been tried for a decade and that, like the CSCC’s earlier strategy, is unproven. Rashad Hussain, a former White House advisor and the one brought in to lead the ICC’s new effort still thinks that the battle can be won with “truth.”

It will seek to highlight Islamic State hypocrisy, emphasize accounts of its defectors, and document its losses on the battlefield — without recirculating its gruesome images or matching its snide tone. “When amplified properly, we believe the facts speak for themselves,” Hussain said.

But the “facts,” are of course relative to all parties involved. Appealing to the “facts” is a persuasion tactic. Persuasion, according to Bruce Lincoln, relies on “arguing a case, advancing reasoned propositions, impassioned appeals, and rhetorical flourishes that lead the hearer to a desired conclusion,” whereas authority need only involve “the naked assertion that the identity of the speaker warrants acceptance of the speech” (Lincoln, Authority, 5). This is necessary because the speaker (the U.S. government) has no authority to begin with in the eyes of the group they’re targeting with this messaging. Thus, the presentation of “facts” that “speak for themselves” is an attempt to give the U.S. government’s message an air of objectivity and legitimacy

Yet it still seems destined to fail. ISIS (and their potential recruits) will dismiss this as “propaganda” just as quickly as the U.S. dismisses ISIS’ “propaganda.” This strategy has been in place for more than a decade and we have yet to reach the desired result. The lack of effectiveness, though, is easily overlooked because this is what the U.S. has always done. As in marketing, so in government – and even more so when it’s the government doing the marketing – the status quo often wins the day.