How to Save Lives by Countering ISIS Propaganda

Undated image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, showing fighters from ISIS marching in Raqqa, Syria.
Photo: Uncredited

It sounds like a cliché at this point, but the Western world really is engaged in a “war of ideas” with ISIS. And it’s a war with high stakes, given the two primary goals of ISIS’s savvy, social-media-driven propaganda: to convince disillusioned, mostly young people from around the world to move to the group’s self-declared “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, and to convince them to carry out attacks against civilians in their own countries.

ISIS’s brutally violent videos and thousands of active Twitter accounts aren’t the sole reasons individuals get radicalized and join the cause, of course, but they have played a major role in the organization’s success, leaving a trail of tragedies along the way. While investigators are still sorting out the details, for example, it’s likely both the San Bernardino and Paris attacks involved some degree of online radicalization. This material is terrifying because of its potential to cross great distances, helping radicalize and incite both groups and “lone wolves” in places where ISIS otherwise has no footprint. There’s a reason why intelligence agencies have gotten so fixated on ISIS’s communications skills, and why the legal scholar Eric Posner argued in Slate that ISIS propaganda is so dangerous it should spur a rethinking of the boundaries of the First Amendment.

The problem is that there is apparently something deeply affecting about ISIS’s self-glorifying story line, at least for a small, vulnerable subset of its target audience: Through Twitter befriending and triumphant, blood-soaked videos, ISIS is able to successfully convince recruits that it can offer them more than their friends, their family, or their native town or country will ever be able to. Many of the men who are seduced by this propaganda die on the battlefields of Syria or Iraq, or return home radicalized and battle-hardened, while the women are effectively turned into sexual chattel. Countering ISIS propaganda, then, has become an urgent imperative. The problem is that, as of yet, no one has come up with an effective, evidence-based strategy for doing so. 

That’s where Kurt Braddock, a lecturer in communications at Penn State University and project manager at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism, and John Horgan, a professor of psychology at Georgia State, come in. In a new paper in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, they lay out a general model for how to build “counter-narratives” that can combat the messages ISIS and other groups (not just jihadist ones) use to recruit and to incite. If their approach is refined and perfected — and Braddock and Horgan will be the first to tell you that there’s miles to go — it could eventually form a potent weapon in the fight to starve ISIS of recruits.

Braddock and Horgan were in part motivated by their belief that current efforts to counter ISIS propaganda don’t draw upon what researchers know about persuasion and political psychology.

There is a growing amount of attention to counter-narratives,” said Braddock in an email, “but with only a few exceptions, a lot of this work is atheoretical and is of the shot-in-the-dark variety. We wanted to say, ‘Let’s stop guessing. This is possible, and this is how it can be done.’”

Horgan cited Think Again Turn Away, the Department of State’s English-language effort at countering jihadist propaganda on Facebook and Twitter, as one example of shot-in-the-dark-ism. In his view, the campaign was likely to “struggle to succeed from day one because it just didn’t have the credibility of the source.” That is, if you’re the sort of person susceptible to extremist arguments in favor of jihad and terrorism, you’re unlikely to be swayed by counterarguments that plainly originate from the State Department. In addition, Horgan said, “In many ways it was just little more than outright contradiction” — debating with jihadists over various claims and trying to portray them in a negative light — despite voluminous evidence that this style of argument and fact-checking is ineffective at nudging people out of emotionally or politically charged beliefs. Horgan isn’t alone in this assessment of Think Again Turn Away; the director of one private intelligence group called the effort “embarrassing” in Time, and the Washington Post reported earlier this month that the State Department “is considering scaling back its direct involvement in online campaigns to discredit the Islamic State after a review by outside experts cast new doubt on the U.S. government’s ability to serve as a credible voice against the terrorist group’s propaganda.”

So what does work? The core of Braddock and Horgan’s argument in their paper is that there’s an important contextual component missing from many attempts at countering extremist narratives. Calling ISIS members liars or highlighting their grotesque human-rights abuses isn’t going to cause potential recruits to spurn the group. Rather, effective counter-narratives require actually understanding what’s going on in the propaganda itself, and building a somewhat tailored rebuttal that touches on the same themes that make these stories appealing in the first place.

This is easier said than done, of course, and to show what they mean, Braddock and Horgan provide an example drawn from the sad real-world story of Andre Poulin. Poulin was “a Canadian citizen and Muslim convert … who traveled to Syria in 2012 to fight [alongside] ISIS. In the video, Poulin tells of the story of his origins as a ‘regular Canadian,’ the roles available for those that join ISIS, and the glory of martyrdom. The video also features narration by an unnamed speaker, who tells of Poulin’s death in the Summer of 2013.”

Analyzing the content of the narrative carefully, the researchers determined it was “primarily comprised of four themes with specific implications and meanings”:

-“Pre-ISIS Normalcy” — Poulin emphasized that he had been a normal, contented Canadian before departing for Syria.

-“Everyday Life - Islam Contradiction: — Poulin argued that to live in Canada was to be complicit in a worldwide “War on Islam.”

-Group Need - Individual Skill Synthesis — Poulin emphasized that anyone could contribute to the Islamic State whatever skills or resources they possessed.

-Glory of Martyrdom — The narrator valorized the ultimate sacrifice Poulin made for ISIS.

Then Braddock and Horgan set about creating a hypothetical counter-narrative that would undercut this pitch, that would, in theory, effectively target the sort of person who might believe the claims proffered by Poulin and the narrator.

They centered it on a young German Muslim named Usman:

Usman sat quietly, looking out the window of the train as it sped back toward his home in Germany. He solemnly reflected on his time in Syria, thinking about how much his experiences there differed from what he expected when he arrived the year before. A web developer in Berlin, Usman thought he would find other working-class Muslims to befriend and fight alongside. Though some of the other fighters did come from typical jobs, he could not relate to them; they seemed different from his friends back home. They seemed colder, less friendly, less interested in the things he cared about, and less willing to help him if he were in trouble.

The more he thought about his fellow fighters in Syria, the more he missed his best friend Nasir back in Berlin. Nasir got him out of trouble more times than he could count, especially at work. His ‘comrades’ in Aleppo asked him to reveal the position of an enemy sniper by raising his head above a brick wall, drawing fire, and being shot in the face so they could flee. Nasir, though… he had always been the first to claim responsibility for Usman’s mistakes to keep him from getting in trouble with the boss. Usman rested his head in his hands and closed his eyes, fighting the sting of tears behind his eyelids; he felt ashamed for leaving his friend.

As his train began to slow upon its final approach to Berlin, Usman vowed that he would never again abandon those that truly care about him to join those that sought only to use him. He promised to himself that he would use his skills as a web developer to organize protests to advocate the proper treatment of Muslims worldwide—protests he could organize with Nasir.

The train slowed to a stop, and the other passengers got up and left. But Usman sat a little longer, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye, and thinking about how lucky he was to return to Germany and his friends, and with the opportunity to support Muslim rights alongside those that truly care about him. Usman stood up and looked at his cell phone. He wondered if Nasir was still at work, and how quickly the two of them could design a website to help organize a protest in the park next to their neighborhood. If they worked hard, they could probably finish the site by the weekend. Usman smiled for the first time in months, and finally stepped off the train and onto the station platform.

It’s important to note that this is just an example Braddock and Horgan are using to demonstrate the general technique here, rather than any sort of finished counter-narrative product. But it’s still easy to see why a story like this one could be more effective than straightforward, less nuanced debunking or demonization; here, the reader ideally picks up on the fact that Usman heard basically the same promises they did. But the fictional Usman actually went to Syria, and the reality proved far different from what was promised in the caliphate-glorifying videos that propagate online. The reader can put him- or herself in Usman’s shoes in a personal way, hopefully igniting a visceral, emotional reaction to the prospect of leaving their life behind.

Again, though: The messenger matters a great deal as well. You wouldn’t want the State Department disseminating this counter-narrative (not openly, at least). Rather, Braddock and Horgan write that “counter-narratives like this one can be provided to religious scholars and respected imams in Muslim communities in the countries from which ISIS foreign fighters are drawn” — a potentially fruitful alliance between researchers and community leaders, given the compelling interest said leaders have in keeping their young people out of harm’s way.

This ties into Braddock’s broader message about the future of his and Horgan’s sort of work. He pointed out that there’s sometimes an unfortunate gap between academics and policy-makers. “I think the next step in bringing this work to practical application is getting academics who are versed in theory to interact and work with those in a position to actually use the counter-narratives,” he said. “For a long time, we (researchers) have heard from analysts, practitioners, and government officials that our work can be useful, but that we need to be more active in working with them to get the theory-based guidelines into practice. So, the next question is ‘How can we engage with the practitioners (and how do practitioners want to engage with us) to make use of these counter-narratives?’”

In other words, phrased less diplomatically: Now might be a good time for those tasked with countering ISIS propaganda to start listening to experts.