Opinion: Beating ISIS propaganda? We can't just leave it to governments

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Story highlights

  • Expert: Governments can't counter ISIS communications by themselves
  • Private marketeers and others may have more success, say some observers

Jonathan Russell is head of policy for the anti-radicalization think tank Quilliam. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

London (CNN)Governments cannot defeat extremism by themselves. They may be able to degrade and destroy ISIS jihadists on the battlefield with their targeted air strikes, but if they're going to win this generational struggle against ideological fanatics then they are going to have to triumph in the battle of ideas and win the war of words. And that is not going to happen on Capitol Hill or in Downing Street.

ISIS is undeniably savvy when it comes to social media and devising innovative narratives that target and appeal to a host of vulnerable communities. Its propaganda is good, it works -- but it isn't perfect and it need not continue working as it does now.
    Western societies are masters of marketing and own the monopoly on social media and technology firms. They have become adept at influencing mass market behavior for decades, from public health initiatives and political campaigns to improving LGBT rights, reducing smoking and selling products to consumers. They have ample experience in a sector that dwarfs ISIS' capabilities.
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    But as the West's military might in the field against ISIS is slowly becoming more and more apparent, so it is time that it also flexes its communications muscle equally as well. ISIS must be destroyed militarily, but its ideology must also be brought into the open and rendered intellectually and emotionally bankrupt. Why then, is the West not winning the war of words and reclaiming the virtual landscape in which ISIS openly recruits?
    Firstly, governments are the dominant force in our collective counter-narrative sphere -- but they are far from credible voices. A young Muslim man in Bradford, northern England, is unlikely to change his mind due to an official government Twitter account occasionally engaging with him online. If the U.S. State Department's Twitter account writes to Abu Khalid al-Amriki, perhaps the Big Brother syndrome will even kick in to reinforce his opposition to the West's shared values.
    Governments are incapable of countering the ISIS concept of communications by themselves. ISIS messaging continuously mutates with different audiences, producing an average of 38 unique pieces of communications a day. In contrast governments are centralized, fraught with red-tape and lack the speed, aggression and energy that a devolved approach to communications requires.
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    Secondly, much of the strategy for defeating the ISIS message has revolved around the deployment of negative measures. Merely reporting, censoring and blocking ISIS leaves us short. Though the internet should be made more hostile to the kind of messages ISIS peddles, we will end up driving ISIS supporters underground when ideas go unchallenged. As the dark net proliferates, we may one day look back to this period of open jihadist messaging as the golden era for us to understand their narrative, counter it and make effective threat assessments. Time is of the essence.
    A fundamental restructure is required if we are to win the war of words. The male, pale and stale of Washington DC and Westminster cannot keep up with Snapchat, Telegram and Kik. Targeted dissemination, with credible messengers, must engage all sectors of society if we are to counter and deflect jihadist propaganda.
    The private marketing sector has have been delivering messaging campaigns through in-depth audience analysis for far longer than the government and can continue to do so when it comes to counter-extremism. Fuse those with civil society activists and not-for-profit organisations -- who have the best track record in the development of counter-narrative and alternative narratives -- and we have a winning formula.
    By working in partnership, we can not only degrade the effectiveness of ISIS propaganda but also challenge the wider echo chamber that gives ISIS oxygen, a place where our messages have thus far failed to penetrate. This is a strategic approach to the digital counter-insurgency required to prevent radicalization online.
    Social media firms are key players when it comes to ensuring counter-messaging reaches the right parts of the online community. But simply placing counter-narratives into areas where extremists are unlikely to encounter them is a waste of money, brains and time.
    The experience is there, the talent is there, the resources are there. We now need the strategy too. Governments can no longer lead if we are to win the war of words.