Combating extremist propaganda

By Haroro Ingram

In November 2007 the then US Defense Secretary Robert Gates lamented: “How has one man in a cave [Osama Bin Laden] managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?”

A decade later and the issue of how to understand and combat violent extremist propaganda strategies remains one of the most pressing security challenges facing scholars and policymakers alike.

Of course, how security challenges are understood – whether it is the nuclear ambitions of a rogue state, shifts in regional balances of power or the threat posed by violent non-state political groups – fundamentally shapes the strategies devised to confront those threats.

Four factors have tended to dominate how the appeal of violent extremist propaganda is understood: slick production value, hypnotising ideology, graphic violence and mastery of social media.

A seemingly endless procession of supposed ‘terrorism experts’ have been all too willing to champion this view because it intuitively makes sense and promises ‘sound bite’ ready explanations for the media.

From this perspective, ISIS’s propaganda machine was able to eclipse its predecessors because its messages were more slickly produced, more vivid and more ideologically extreme than its competitors.

Following this logic, as ISIS weakens, its competitors will learn from its example and up their game by producing slicker, more violent and more ideologically extreme material.

It is an understanding that has helped to inform strategic policy responses that have tended to focus on shutting down violent extremist social media accounts and deploying slickly produced messages that decry violence and champion a moderate ideology.

However, the evidence paints a very different picture. Slick production in fact has a relatively small impact on whether a message resonates. When it comes to graphic violence, even for a group like ISIS, such material is rarely a dominant feature of its messaging.

Far more important than production value or gore in the appeal of a violent extremist propaganda is how that message leverages psychosocial and strategic factors – such as offering solutions to perceptions of crisis deemed pertinent in communities of potential support.

Groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS understand that not only is social media only one of many mediums of communication that need to be deployed to maximise the reach of their messages, but also that cyberspace is a ‘virtual’ means by which to achieve their ultimate ‘real world’ ends. Consequently, focusing disproportionately on combating violent extremists in cyberspace risks missing other fronts in the ‘information theatre’.