Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The medium is not the message: Digital Counterinsurgency

The November-December 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs includes an article by Jared Cohen titled 'Digital Counterinsurgency: How to Marginalize the Islamic State Online'.

Too many essays that claim to provide a blueprint on how to confront IS online do so through a detailed examination of the technology and a renewed emphasis on policing the internet. Cohen's essay is no different. From 'suspending the specific accounts responsible for setting strategy and giving orders to the rest of its online army' to 'banning users who break the rules and distribute terrorist content', we are asked to consider a range of techniques that might lead to IS being marginalised in cyberspace and force the group to the so-called Dark Web.

The article is flawed in two important respects:

First, it claims that there is a direct correlation between the number of 'foreign recruits' (c.20,000, 'nearly 4,000 of whom hail from Western countries') and IS propaganda: 'Many of these recruits made initial contact with the Islamic State and its ideology via the Internet. Other followers, meanwhile, are inspired by the group's online propaganda to carry our terrorist attacks without traveling to the Middle East'. Cohen continues: 'Every day the group's message reaches millions of people, some of whom become proponents of the Islamic State or even fighters for its cause'. If this was a student essay, I would ask the author: Where is your evidence for such claims? Can you substantiate the idea that 'many' (a far too vague and meaningless word) IS fighters from abroad are seduced by propaganda? How many are the 'some' to which you refer out of the 'millions' the propaganda reaches?

Understanding how propaganda works and, perhaps most importantly in this case, its limitations is the key to analysing its impact; and any serious analyst of of propaganda would answer that it cannot change minds or alter behaviour, but rather latches on to, and exaggerates, existing or latent emotions, beliefs and ideas. There is more to understanding the IS terrorist than the seductive power of propaganda, and most helpful will be understanding the context in which the propaganda is both produced and received.

Second, the article raises, but fails to address in sufficient detail the ethical and legal consequences of its recommendations. Who decides what is a terrorist, and even an IS social media account? Who decides, and by what criteria, which messages are considered 'extremist', inflammatory or dangerous?  Cohen treads on even more dangerous ground when he suggests 'governments should consider working with the news media to aggressively publicize arrests that result from covert infiltration of the Islamic State's online network'. The day that governments in liberal-democracies work with the news media is the day the terrorists have won, for it is a clear violation of the objective and independent professionalism that should govern how news media work. It is the media's job to scrutinise governments, to hold them to account for their actions, not to 'work with them', aggressively or otherwise.

Finally, the article fails to discuss in any meaningful detail not only the message that may help to marginalise IS - on and offline - but also the political action that may help to isolate the terrorists and understand why young Muslims choose to join such terrorist organisations in the first place. Some of the issues we need to consider include:

(a) White middle class men explaining what Islam is and is not; what the Koran says and does not say; and what the Koran means. The condemnation of Islamic terrorism must begin in Islamic communities themselves. This means avoiding mass messaging in favour of community-based dialogue and discussion, and giving Muslim communities the tools to combat radicalisation themselves.

(b) Not listening to the Muslim voice. Governments must do more to engage with Muslim communities, and actually hear what they are saying. What inspires young Muslims to travel to Syria and join ISIS? Is it simply for the thrill? The promise of glory and status? A sense of brotherhood? To punish the west for their crimes against Islam? To escape deprivation at home? Or because they truly believe in an Islamic Caliphate?  Only when we truly understand why IS is able to recruit in such numbers - and there will be many explanations - can western governments begin to tackle the problem. We know some young Muslims are being radicalised: the important question is not how, but Why? This may mean governments having to rethink policy, at home and abroad, because states are judged by the credibility and legitimacy of their actions, not their words.

Focusing on policing social media and dreaming up ever more innovative methods of controlling the internet is one solution, but it is not necessarily the only nor perhaps the best solution. In combating the evil of IS terrorism, governments need to pay far more attention to their own propaganda message, how it is delivered, by whom and to whom; and actively engage in a more intimate way Muslim communities who may hold in their hand both an explanation for, and an answer to, the crisis we face.  


  1. neutrality is purely a human imagination. policing the internet means west ceases to be the west.