IS Propaganda: Should We Counter the Narrative?

Alastair Reed 17 Mar 2017

Over the last few years as the strength of so-called Islamic State (IS)’s propaganda has dawned on the West and the widespread fear of its role in radicalisation has taken hold, policy makers have been clamouring to find an effective response. Recently, what has emerged in policy circles as the perceived panacea for IS’s propaganda is ‘counter-narratives’, into which considerable resources have been poured to support campaigns driven by governments, NGOs and local communities. The concept of ‘counter-narratives’ appears at first glance to be an inherently intuitive response to neutralise the opposition’s radicalising narrative. However, it is based on a whole set of unaddressed assumptions, not least should we indeed counter the narrative?

At the heart of any comprehensive communication campaign are two types of messaging strategies, defensive and offensive – by definition, counter-narratives are inherently defensive. One lesson from history, that reflection on past communication campaigns demonstrates, is that successful campaigns combine both defensive and offensive messaging, with the latter dominating. Looking back to history for example, Wallace Carroll the former Deputy Director of the UK’s Office of War Information in World War II, argued that it was the transition from defensive to offensive messaging that tipped the balance in the ‘information war’ in favour of the Allies. The reason for this is that counter-narratives merely respond to the opposition’s messages, allowing them to set the ground on which the communication battle will be fought and to maintain control of the narrative.

If we reflect on the recent American elections, and political campaigns in general, there are some clear lessons to learn. Unless absolutely necessary, campaigns should avoid responding to the opposition’s messages as this simply repeats and re-enforces their messaging. As such, a campaign ends up talking about what the opposition wants to talk about, allowing them to set the narrative of the election. By responding to the opposition’s messaging, you are allowing them to set the ground on which the communication battle will be fought.

Offensive messaging by contrast, attacks the opposition, forcing them onto the back foot and requiring them to waste their resources on countering your message. However, most importantly, it is the means through which to take control of the narrative and to set the terms of the debate. Unlike defensive messaging that focusses on the opposition’s message, going on the offensive gives the opportunity to get your key messages across. As political strategist Dr. Ron Faucheux argues,[d]efense may win football games but staying on the offense wins wars and political campaigns. That’s why campaigns attack the other side; when you’re on the attack, you’re on the offense and your opponent is on the defense.”

Not only that, but IS has developed a sophisticated media-baiting strategy in which they disseminate propaganda designed to elicit a typical response, in order to create opportunities for them to exploit with pre-prepared waves of secondary messaging. An infamous example is the “Healing the Believers’ Chests” video which showed the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot: when the West responded with messages decrying the barbarity of IS, the latter was ready to respond pointing out the hypocrisy (in their eyes) of the outcry since there had been no similar outcry over Muslim children being burned alive daily by aerial bombing, thereby ‘proving’ the West cared more about one pilot than the Muslim civilians killed in air strikes. In short, our rush to respond played straight into IS’s hands: by racing to counter their narrative, we run the risk of at best fighting the war of words on their terms and at worst falling into their trap, re-enforcing their narrative. Although a necessary part of any communication campaign, counter-narratives alone will never win the campaign, this requires going on the offensive.

Perhaps the greatest failing that this fixation on counter-narratives highlights, is the piecemeal approach to communications and the lack of understanding of the need for a comprehensive, integrated and multi-dimensional communications campaign. Successful campaigns are a complex construction, made up of multiple different types of messaging (offensive and defensive, identity and rational-choice) dispatched through multiple mediums (online, print, tv, radio, oration), all in support of and mutually re-enforcing, a central narrative and synchronised with action on the ground. This is the reality of the propaganda campaign that we face from IS. It is naivety at best, but certainly doomed to failure, to respond with only a focus on one type of messaging in an isolated effort against an integrated campaign. The sum is certainly greater than the parts. Whilst politicians seem apt at understanding the scale and sophistication of the communication campaigns needed to get them elected, it is time that they realise that the same effort is needed to face down IS’s propaganda.